Posts Tagged The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
Amy Steele: How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
Andrew Sean Greer: In writing The Confessions of Max Tivoli and Story of a Marriage, the plots rely on the character being unable to make liberated choices, due to the times in which they live. That led me to be interested in how the same story would differ in three different time frames—same characters, same tensions, same situations, with only the year changed. I set out to write the book as a three-part novel, only to decide it would be intensely boring. That is when I decided to put all the stories on top of each other, and create a protagonist who would wake up in a different story every day, and be forced to adjust to how things were different. That person became Greta Wells.
Amy Steele: What interests you about time travel?
Andrew Sean Greer: Well, as the novel is about alternative realities, other worlds, I don’t think of it as time travel. It is more a novel of anachronism. Interviewers often ask me what time I would like to live in, and I have to say to them I’d like to bring my friend along, which means often my female friends would be unable to work, or vote, and my black friends unable to move freely, Chinese friends unable to reunite with their spouses. And as for me, as a gay man…well the past doesn’t look too pleasant. So I have an unromantic view of the past. Which allows me, I think, to enjoy it all the more in my writing.
Amy Steele: Why did you choose to set the story in 1984, 1941 and 1918?
Andrew Sean Greer: Gut feeling. Those time periods simply interested me. 1918 was always a fascinating moment, and I wanted a time period near the middle of the century. And I decided that, while I could put Greta’s world in the present day, if I set it in 1985, I would get an extra time period at no extra cost! Only then did their connections reveal themselves to me—two worlds at war, two worlds with plague, and so on. WIth this book, I followed and trusted my instincts far more than my brain.
Amy Steele: What do you like about Greta?
Andrew Sean Greer: She is stubborn and vulnerable, she is a mute Cassandra, and she is, though very sad, capable of bearing witness to the beauty of places others take for granted, and for recognizing the possibilities thwarted in lives of those she loves.
Amy Steele: Greta’s twin Felix is a major part of her life. What interested you in writing about twins?
Andrew Sean Greer: I’m an identical twin 🙂
Amy Steele: How would you describe Felix?
Andrew Sean Greer: Well, there are three Felixes, in three different worlds. 1985 Felix, who we see only in memory (as he is dead when the novel begins), is funny, brash, driven by a thirst for life. 1941 Felix is secretive, desperate and about to have a nervous breakdown. 1918 Felix is a mask of smiles and pat phrases, hiding a tormented inner life. They are all the same man, in the way that our different moods from different moments are all the same us. And, in a way, they are all pieces of me.
Amy Steele: The twins also have this wonderful aunt. She’s so open-minded and independent.
Andrew Sean Greer: I LOVE HER! She was a great creation to be able to put on the page. I know quite a number of women like her, and they are not always celebrated for their independence! Strong women suffer. And Ruth suffers, though you only see it in small moments. She also will not indulge self-pity in Greta. She has seen a lot, and only gotten through it with will and making everything into a funny story at a party.
Amy Steele: The reason why Greta travels is that she’s receiving electroshock therapy for depression. Why don’t you mention her depression at all? There’s no way she would be instantly “cured.” [and I’m speaking as someone who has clinical depression.]
Andrew Sean Greer: I don’t understand the question—the first twenty-five pages of the novel are devoted to describing her depression. Look at page 13. I, too, suffer from depression, as do most of my friends. I can’t imagine claiming anyone is cured. But my god, waking up in a new world, she is certainly distracted!
Amy Steele: You’re the son of two scientists. What effect did that have on your world view and your own education and career plans?
Andrew Sean Greer: They were also two people who came from poor, rural areas of the South, and books were what brought them out of those worlds. So books were always held up in my house as the greatest, most accessible kind of travel away from pain, and also the way to understand it. Is it any wonder I became a writer?
Amy Steele: You received your undergraduate degree from Brown University. Did you become interested in writing in college?
Andrew Sean Greer: I became interested in writing when i was ten. I wrote stories until I was 16, when I wrote my first novel. So no, my interested started long, long ago!
Amy Steele: What did you do at Nintendo? What kind of place was that to work at?
Andrew Sean Greer: I worked for Nintendo Power magazine, which was dedicated to helping American kids get through the very difficult game levels (seen by the company to be too hard for Americans). I had to win the games and document, in kid-prose, how to beat the game! It involved hours of gameplay, and my godsons thought I was the most amazing adult ever! Then I’d write the articles. I was hardly ever at the Nintendo campus except to talk to the game developers, who gave me maps and tips. It was so long ago that I got the job after answering an ad in the local paper!
Amy Steele: Where do you write?
Andrew Sean Greer: I have been traveling for a year and a half, so I’ve learned to write anywhere. I have friends who write in cafe on yellow legal pads. I have friends who write on a treadmill office in their house. I seem to prefer a small quiet internet-free room with a couch to nap on. But relying on “needing” something to write is just another form of procrastination—so whenever I develop a habit, I try to break it!
Amy Steele: This is the first of your novels I’ve read. What would you suggest I read next? Do you have a particular favorite?
Andrew Sean Greer: Well I hope it was a nice introduction! I think the next most similar, if you liked Greta Wells, is The Confessions of Max Tivoli. It, also, has a small magical premise, an obsessive love story, and an historical setting. And, like Greta, it is built to make a certain number of readers cry
Amy Steele: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions, Andrew. I will definitely add your other books to my reading list.
The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu [Hogarth Books]
My favorite book of last year is available in paperback. The novel focuses on three young women in the Israeli army. They’re thrown into some truly adult and potentially dangerous situations. While they often think like hormonal, selfish, naïve teenagers at other times these women react with amazing strength, bravery and clarity. Boianjiu includes point of views from Egyptian army members, Palestinians and a Ukranian woman who seeks to emigrate to Israel. A veteran of the IDF, she writes with compassion, humor, modernity and a humanistic approach to the IDF and Israel’s issues with its border nations as well as the United States and the UK.
The Collective by Done Lee [W.W. Norton paperback, 2013]
“Give up trying. The world doesn’t need another dilettante, and that’s all you’ve ever been.”
This was one of my favorite novels of 2012. While at Macalester college, Eric Cho forms a strong friendship with painter Jessica Tsai and novelist Joshua Yoon. Years later they reunite in Cambridge forming the Asian American Artists Collective [3 AC]. Don Lee masterfully creates characters, story lines and vivid descriptions with the most gorgeous prose. These characters compete with each other, become jealous of one another and support each other’s goals. Lee truly grasps the creative lifestyle–its ups and downs, its starving moments, its triumphant moments.
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer [ECCO, 2013]
“Why is it so impossible to be a woman? [sic] When has a woman ever been forgiven? Can you even imagine it? For I have seen the plane of being, and nowhere upon it is the woman tracing her life as she always dreamed of it. Always there are the boundaries, the rules, the questions—wouldn’t you prefer to be back home, little lady?—that break the spell of the living.”
This one’s about time-travel however Greta travels in an unusual, ingenious way. It’s engrossing as long as you can get past the issue that causes Greta to time travel—she’s being treated for her depression by electroshock therapy—“Of course this was how our minds had connected in that blue electric flash of madness, across the membrane of three worlds so we switched places, two Gretas and myself, and awoke to different lives.” My issue wasn’t with that but with Greer never mentioning her depression as she traveled from her present day of 1984 to 1918 to 1941. The present Greta just lost her twin brother Felix to AIDS and her longtime paramour left her. In each time period she’s missing a loved one and her life’s slightly different. Even her physical appearance is a bit different. Greer recreates each time period through wonderful description, interesting people and dialogue. It’s a fast-paced novel perfect for summer reading. In the end Greta much decide which time she’s happiest in and in which she wants to remain.
Crazy Brave by Jo Harjo [W.W. Norton, 2012]
Poet and Native American Jo Harjo writes lyrically about her difficult childhood in the Midwest. Her stepfather was an abusive alcoholic; she faced extreme challenges as a Native American and pretty much raised two children on her own. While she recalls these horrific moments in her past she’s also hauntingly philosophical and forgiving. She writes: “In the end, we must each tend to our own gulf of sadness, though others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music. Our human tendency is to fill these holes with distractions like shopping and fast romance, or with drugs and alcohol.” She also intersperses her tribe’s beliefs but never in an overbearing manner. About having a spinal tap in her youth, she writes: “The spinal column carries personal essence back and forth between earth and sky. The spine is powerful and vulnerable. The procedure was excruciating.” She’s a powerful voice for women and minorities; a truly beautiful soul.