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Know the West

The sky is a crowded attic

An interview with novelist Andrew Sean Greer


Novelist Andrew Sean Greer is the author of The Story of a Marriage, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, The Path of Minor Planets, and the short story collection How It Was For Me. Among other honors, Greer has won the PEN/O'Henry Prize for Short Fiction and the California Book Award. He was born in Washington, D.C., has lived in several places in the West, and now resides in San Francisco.

Both The Confessions of Max Tivoli and The Story of a Marriage take a historical San Francisco as their setting. For Max Tivoli, the city's 1906 earthquake mirrors his own oft-broken heart. For Pearlie Cook, protagonist of The Story of a Marriage, life as the lone African-American housewife in the 1953 Sunset district grows harder when she suddenly doubts how well she knows her husband, a veteran of World War II.

High Country News correspondent Jeremy N. Smith talked with Greer about the importance of setting in his fiction. This interview has been condensed and edited for readability.

High Country News There's a wonderful quote by the Livingston, Mont.-based novelist and critic Walter Kirn. "Setting is key," he says. "We believe in places in a way we don't believe in people." Your novels and stories often contain historical backdrops and fantastic elements -- for example, Max Tivoli describes a man aging backwards -- made utterly realistic by lyrically described settings.

Andrew Sean Greer When I first came to Montana in 1994 -- and I moved there from New York City -- I was perplexed about what everyone was talking about when they mentioned a sense of place. When you live in East Coast cities, it's not what you think about. New Yorkers don't look up at buildings. They look at each other. (Laughs) Coming out West, I realized for the first time how much you have to work with, and how rich setting can be in terms of metaphor.

HCN I think of the early scene in The Story of a Marriage when Pearlie re-encounters her first love and future husband, Holland, in San Francisco after World War II. "The wind stopped, as if, like Holland, it did not recognize me," you write. "We stayed for a moment in the oyster-colored air." That description of wind and fog paints the entire scene in sepia.

Greer I moved to San Francisco in 1998, and fog is something you notice every day. It goes from warm and sunny to a film noir movie within minutes. It's nice that fog is particular to San Francisco. As a descriptor, it can be joyous or depressing or quiet. For The Story of A Marriage, I needed Pearlie to have very few choices in her life. Fog was ideal to make her world quiet and isolated. Later I take her out to Marin County, where it's golden and sunny, and the reader, I think, experiences with her a kind of joy and relief.

HCN Pearlie is born in Kentucky, then moves West. "On the bus ride to California, I studied the mountains' ascent into a line of clouds and saw where, as if set upon those clouds, even higher mountains loomed," you write. "I had never seen a sight like that in all my life. It was as if the world had been enchanted all along and no one told me."

Greer That paragraph is precisely my reaction when I first came to Missoula in 1994. I had no idea what Montana would be like. This is embarrassing, but I remember standing on the Higgins Avenue bridge and looking at the sunset and kind of being terrified at what I saw. This is a very New Yorker response, but it was way too beautiful. I had never felt before that bond with nature. For the first time, I really confronted place description. I had to figure out how to be specific to these settings and not just make a list of weed varietals.

HCN Do you remember when you started setting stories in the West rather than the East?

Greer It was when I lived in Seattle right after grad school. It started with the first sentence of the first story in my short story collection, How It Was For Me.

HCN "The sky is a crowded attic."

Greer There you go. The sky! That's a description that would never work in New York. There the sky is all one thing. It's uniform. I had never seen that thing you see from the Higgins Avenue bridge, where you have three different sunsets going on at once: tiny little clouds here and then enormous cumulous clouds there and then, over there, it's raining. There's so much more in Western settings to lean on. In Saul Bellow, that great Chicago writer, you get Chicago, but through personality and going through a lot of office doors, not through place description. Out West, you can lean on the environment. You can describe the sky and it comes off.

HCN Now that you've lived here 15 years, do you consider yourself a Western writer?

Greer I do in that there is a history in the West of people moving west until they find a place that suits them. So each of these people is some kind of pioneer. They settle to their own level. Those are the people I'm interested in. It's the best landscape for visions.