For novelist Andrew Sean Greer, a summer stay in Aspen has provided a pivotal turning point in his latest work.
“All I have to say is, ‘I finished my novel,’” Greer grinned Tuesday.
As this summer’s Aspen Writers’ Foundation (AWF) writer-in-residence, Greer has been holed up in Woody Creek since mid-May, revising and tweaking his widely-anticipated fourth novel.
He road-tripped here from Iowa City last month, following a semester teaching graduate students at the renowned Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.
The AWF put him up in a home on the property of Isa Catto and Daniel Shaw in Woody Creek, where the late Henry Catto once hosted President George H.W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher to plot the Persian Gulf War.
Before the AWF’s Summer Words festival heated up this week, and the literary crowd and Greer’s husband descended on town, he said, he was sequestered there — focused on revising the last draft of his manuscript. He allowed himself daily breaks to jog up and down Little Woody Creek Road and to get on the Internet at the Woody Creek Community Center (his productivity slowed some, he noted, once he turned on the wireless connection at home).
There will be more pre-publication tweaks in the coming months, but he’s calling the book complete.
The book in question is his follow-up to the 2008 best-seller “The Story of a Marriage,” a brooding novel set in the ‘50s that chronicles the marriage of a black woman and a closeted gay man.
Greer’s been working on the current project for about three years. It’s narrated by a woman who wakes up daily in one of three versions of her life, in three different time periods: 1918, 1941 and 1985. The way he explained it, the book appears to tussle with some of the same themes he’s explored in his earlier work — identity, love, and how society and its prejudices shape them.
The fantastical elements of the new book recall his breakthrough novel, 2004’s “The Confessions of Max Tivoli,” which is narrated by a man who ages backwards.
Readers could easily forget the pseudo-science fiction concept of that book, however, as Greer’s clear-eyed characterization and nimble prose takes hold. The late John Updike, in a New Yorker review, called it “resplendently poetic” among other plaudits that helped put Greer on the literary map. Readers have clung to Greer as one of those rare novelists who renders quotable, frame-worthy sentences of Proust-like beauty, but uses them in the service of page-turning plots.
Greer, 41, said the new book is no more about inter-dimensional travel than “Tivoli” was about the logistics of aging in reverse.
“It’s not about time travel, it’s about how the self is constructed by the era we live in,” he offered.
Why his summer in Aspen proved to be key to finishing the work, rather than his winter in Iowa City or time at home in San Francisco, Greer said, he can’t explain.
“It shouldn’t matter,” he said, “because I don’t want to think it’s magical that way. I like to think that that the job is just that you show up, put your ass in the chair and do your work — that you don’t need your special pen or magic place or whatever. And yet, some places are more well-suited than others. ... I think it is the most ridiculous thing to everyone else that I would need to come this far away and live in this place of luxury and beauty to finish the novel. But it worked.”
He first came to Aspen as part of the AWF’s 2008-09 Winter Words lineup, and has since been back for events including the 2011 Great Read and programs in local schools. This week he’s teaching high school students at the Summer Words literary retreat.
This afternoon, he speaks on a panel about short fiction with writers Benjamin Percy and Derek Green at Aspen Meadows.
Past AWF writers-in-residence have included National Book Award winner Colum McCann and Sierra Leone child soldier-turned-memoirist Ishmael Beah.
AWF executive director Lisa Consiglio said the organization offers the residency opportunity to authors who will use their time here to write, but also to contribute to the valley’s intellectual life.
“Andy lights up a room and people really connect with him,” she said. “He’s been in nearly every school in the valley. Choosing a writer-in-residence, we want people who want to be engaged. But, if they’re not writing, then I’m not doing my job. It meant the world to me to get a text message from Andy saying, ‘I just finished my novel.’”