Earlier this month I attended the Writers@Grinnell afternoon roundtable with novelists Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor. Greenwell’s latest novel is Cleanness, and Taylor’s debut novel is Real Life. I first saw Greenwell last fall in conversation with Carmen Maria Machado at her reading at Praire Lights in Iowa City.
I took notes at the event, but I don’t have them with me now, so this will be from memory, and not entirely chronological. The roundtable began with Greenwell and Taylor asking each other a couple of questions. Greenwell asked Taylor how he’d decided on the compressed time frame of his novel (a long weekend), as well as the structure and the shifting tense (present vs. past) and POV (first person vs. third person). The tense and POV came naturally, almost subconsciously, and once Taylor realized what he was writing in he didn’t want to go back and change it. This line of questioning also led to musing on one’s weaknesses as a writer and writing–indeed, creating art–from one’s infirmities (I think).
Both authors’ novels seem to mirror their own lives in a lot of ways, but I was drawn to Taylor’s because its protagonist is trying to survive grad school (I think he has it a lot worse than I did). Taylor himself wrote the novel in grad school, I believe, and in the Q & A a student asked him about his interest in both science (he studied biochemistry) and writing and literature. Taylor saw lots of commonalities between these two fields or pursuits. For instance, both as a scientist and as a novelist you can spend years of your life working on something and not know whether it’ll come to anything (how reassuring).
Greenwell and Taylor both talked about not being able to watch TV shows because they’re uninterested in serial stories that just continue and never end. It’s boring when every episode ends in a cliffhanger intended to lure you back for more. Greenwell said that a story can only have a shape if it has an ending, and I suppose the serial nature of TV, and the perpetual hope of another season, makes that impossible. (I wouldn’t really know; I don’t watch TV either, though not for that reason.) He said he liked works of literature that laid out the whole plot at the beginning, so you knew the shape of the story. My interpretation was that he was much more interested in execution than plot or even storytelling (in a conventional sense).
Another student asked Greenwell how he could write so bravely and unflinchingly; this student sometimes wrote things and then was filled with the sense that they should never write about such things again. In his response, Greenwell talked about shame as an intrinsic aspect of growing up gay, or queer, in the U.S. I think he meant one should do something with that shame rather than deny it? I believe both authors concluded that writers shouldn’t let anyone else hold them back from writing what they want to express.
The most heartwarming aspect of the roundtable were their comments about their friendship, to which they returned again and again. Basically, they seem to have the ideal literary friendship. Greenwell alluded to Taylor making living in Iowa City bearable for him. It sounds as though they meet up in coffee shops almost daily. Taylor also talked about the importance of having that one friend who will instantly get your Jane Austen reference, who will know just what obscure character you mean and share your feelings about them. In fact, they ended the whole roundtable by saying, “Friendship!” in unison, with a kind of ironically sentimental intonation. But at the same time you knew at some level they really meant it.