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Andrew Sean Greer: The Museum of My Beginnings

May 31, 2012 8:00 pm | Posted by: stephen pierson

(from Issue One)

I WROTE MY first novel when I was 10 years old. This is not particularly impressive. Writing a novel at 10 is actually a little late to begin things, if you’re going to be a genius child. Mozart, as my parents often pointed out to me during games of Candy Land, had already written an opera, and there I was trying to lick the board. So, when Mrs. Poppy assigned us each to write a “novel,” I took to it immediately. Here was something even Mozart hadn’t done.

My favorite book at the time was Watership Down, and I admired it fiercely, so when Mrs. Poppy asked us each to write down the plot of our novels, it occurred to me that there was really no better story than animals on a quest. Certainly I hadn’t read one. So, I picked up my pen and wrote about animals on a quest. Not rabbits—I somehow knew about plagiarism—rather I picked squirrels. Everyone loves a story about squirrels.

It began like this: “The sun was just setting over the meadows.”

And ended with genius symmetry: “The sun was just rising over the hills.”

I painstakingly typed out my novel on my mother’s Selectric, carefully writing around the pencil illustrations I had made of squirrels and secret tunnels and a blissful reconciliation; I don’t mind giving away that ending, since it was the style and not the substance that made my novel such a hit with my fellow students. I remember Allison Roberts admiring the cover I’d worked on. She had written a novel about horses traveling west, and I leaned over to advise her in a whisper that she shouldn’t so obviously rip off Richard Adams’s masterpiece (Watership Down) about small furry animals that lived close to the ground. She stared at me, then at my squirrel novel. It must have been hard for her to be touched by envy so early.

My mother still has the novel—Theodore, it’s called—and my grade: an A-plus-plus. “Write me when you publish your first novel,” Mrs. Poppy wrote. I was so happy to have won her approval; only a week before she had, to my horror, called me a “goody two-shoes” for bringing my homework in a vinyl briefcase.

I WROTE MY second novel when I was 16. I’d seen an ad for the Avon-Flare Young Adult Novel Competition taped to the wall of my high school and, because I disapprove of nouns used as adjectives, I had completely misunderstood the title. I had assumed it was a Novel Competition for Young Adults. So, six years after I had put down the pen on Theodore, I picked it up again (this time in the form of a Brother word processor that printed on curling heat-transfer paper; genius works best with a handicap) and began a work 20 times as long: There Lies the Night.

I’d recently been moved to tears by Wuthering Heights, and it occurred to me there was really no better story than ghosts walking on moors, and so I wrote about a dead undertaker haunting his wife on windy nights. An homage, again. I was sure that I lost the contest because it turned out to be a competition for Young Adult Novels, and they could not understand the symbols I had hidden in French throughout my text for scholars to decipher in decades to come. I was a little ambitious.

It began like this: “The stormclouds were violet over the village of Dieusang.”

The novel that did win was called Buck, about a boy with a secret. I was eager to learn what made this a masterpiece, and read chapter after chapter about very dull high-school characters who I assumed were hiding a secret passion, or a dead undertaker husband. Then it was revealed. The secret was that his parents were divorced. I promptly threw it in the trash, already learning to resent American publishing.

BUT I HAD been bitten by the bug. The homage bug, that is. The next year, I read Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist and was so astounded that someone could write about life after the 19th century that I immediately went home to begin my own version. I was still unable to do more than imitate, but my story had a crucial difference from Tyler’s novel about an uptight man who meets an eccentric woman. Mine was about an uptight woman who meets an eccentric woman. It was called Simplicity Itself and began like this:

In her room, every red was red. No brick reds, or cinnamons, or neons, simply an unadulterated red as one sees in primary color wheels in paint stores. As a child, she had started out with a Crayola beginner’s set of crayons. Later, her mother brought forth the Deluxe version, full of Burnt Umbers, Goldenrods, Persimmons, palacial [sic] with its double balcony and fitted cardboard cover, dazzlingly efficient with a crayon sharpener cleverly built into the back, elegantly designed with triangular patterns in Yellow-Orange and Pine Green, but she had simply said, “Thank you, but I don’t need that. Those aren’t colors at all, they’re just pretend.”

A pretty good pastiche, but I never got Simplicity Itself beyond the key meeting where the eccentric neighbor (in a pink dressing gown) walks into the main character’s house, demanding a drink, followed by the sound of a bulldozer ratcheting up the plot by razing the neighbor’s house.

BY THE AGE of 20, I had moved beyond Anne Tyler into a word of haunted and metaphorical fiction, such as Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Is there really any better story than that of a pill that makes you forget death? My novel was completely different, of course. It was about a pill that makes you forget regret. (I’ve heard a recent novel picked up the same idea.) I wrote it in college on the first Macintosh, which they claimed was “portable.” I carried the computer to Portugal, where I plugged it into the socket and watched as smoke billowed from the back of the thing. Some complication with currents, I later learned. I finished the book on a strange device a friend at Apple loaned me—a “laptop”—with which I rode on Lisbon buses, typing away, burping the thing to keep its prototype screen lit, and sure I was part of a future world where this was how writers would live.

I moved to New York to sell this novel. “It just doesn’t ‘sing’ to me,” one agent wrote. “We are finding this sort of story hard to sell,” another advised. “And do not send chocolate with your manuscript next time, as it tends to melt.” An older friend told me that there was no such thing as a 21-year-old novelist, not really, and I should consider getting a real job. Or perhaps going to graduate school. My parents agreed.

Here’s how my last undergraduate effort began:

“Carole Lombard came to my room last night.”

I can’t seem to find more of the novel than that on my computer, for which I am sure future generations will weep. And I can’t seem to remember much more of the plot than the ghost of a movie star visiting that young man who can’t regret things. I do, however, recall the reference letter a professor sent all the grad schools I applied to. I know because I sneaked into the office while the secretary went to the bathroom. I photocopied my file. I quote it here in full:

“Andrew Sean Greer is a self-conscious Dudley Do-Right.”

Mrs. Poppy’s cry of “goody two-shoes” echoed in my skull.

THERE WERE OTHER novels of course. There was the one I wrote on that repaired Macintosh (the “portable” one), whose Portuguese parts must have been intimidated by the American ones, because day by day, the screen would grow smaller until I was staring at something the size of a Chiclet. I was like those Chinese men you see on sidewalks, selling prayers they have written on a grain of rice. That novel I finished in graduate school in Montana. It was, if you can believe it, about deep-sea diving for an undiscovered sunken city off the coast of Portugal and the laptop-carrying young man who finds it. I seem to have a number of drafts still on my hard drive a decade later; I seem to have been unable to give it up. Here’s how it began:

Make me believe it. My mother was a mathematician, and she used to tell my father how her mind seized up with images of thorny symbols, equations trailing off past her line of sight, and how she’d hold her breath the way a nun might at a vision. My father, a biologist, was the same. They were lucky to have the passion to enthrall them while they dusted, cooked or mowed the lawn. I wasn’t as lucky. I had no vision like theirs; children don’t, of course. And at bedtime when they read me a story, I could watch their dazed faces while they recited the lines to me—any task, for them, was an opportunity to go inside themselves. Caught in their own passions, they scattered the words on me like birdfeed in a park, and I was so hungry for the story. It never really came.

I see from an old letter that my agent sent it to 10 publishers (one of whom is my current novels, of course. publisher) before one was willing to meet me. I flew to New York and waited in a restaurant for her to arrive. She came in, all long black shawls and clattering heels. She stared at me and said only, “I see your young phase isn’t over yet” before the carpaccio arrived. When I asked about the novel, she smiled. “Honey, maybe start something else.” I believe now she must have owed my agent a favor.

I DID START something else. I started it immediately upon arriving home to Seattle—well, almost immediately. I’m told I spent a week catatonic on the couch. Then in four months—take that, Mozart!—I started and finished another novel, this time written in a rented house that came with a Siamese cat that screamed all day unless I allowed it to sit in my lap while I wrote. That novel was called Cowboy Up and was, if I remember correctly, about a road trip to discover Western art forgers. There were Mormons and geysers and a villain called Fascinatin’ Tim. I have just reread a letter to my agent at the time, in which I tell him my friends have all read it and it’s surely even better than the unsellable last one. With Cowboy Up, he was speechless. By which I mean he never mentioned it to me—not ever, in all the years of our relationship—except to say, “I think you should work on short stories.” It was that powerful a novel.

Here is how it began:

It was a costume dance to benefit the Olympic mountain range, but by some amazing coincidence, all the young women had come dressed as Spanish ladies. So then picture it: almost a hundred red silk skirts spidered with black lace, dancing across the room like toppled poison mushrooms, whole galaxies of beauty spots glimmering from frowning cheeks, countless rose-stenciled fans flapping away at furious female breasts, causing a sound like sprinklers on a college lawn as well as, more strikingly, near gale-force winds which lifted every one of a hundred mantillas straight into the air. The effect: an Old West bordello reunion. The mood: bitter feminine fury.

A costume dance to benefit the Olympic mountain range. Is there really any better story?

AND THAT WAS the end of my career. I mean, my unpublished career. Yes, I wrote other beginnings. Yes, I had a novel about astronomers (“The sky never forgets”), another one about a man growing younger (“We are each the love of someone’s life”), another one in progress (“This is my saddest story”), but you know how it is: You never forget your first loves. Theodore and the undertaker guy and that deep-sea diving team. And all of those Spanish ladies. My heart belongs to them.

And because even as a child scribbling my squirrel novel, I knew that I should save every draft, I have kept all the machines I wrote those novels on. The Selectric (somewhere in my mother’s flooded basement in Annapolis), the Brother (at my father’s in Pennsylvania), the Macintosh II (boxed up below me now in San Francisco), my first PowerBook (which I tried and failed to sell at a yard sale, though I plugged it in and showed how, after 20 minutes, it still started up fine, what’s the hurry?) and my second (perfectly good, just a stepped-on screen).

One day they will all surely be placed behind Plexiglas in a museum. The Brother will be loaded with heat-transfer paper; the Macintosh will be cured of its scorched screen. And the world will recognize how all the hack efforts of my later “published” years cannot obscure the adoring imitative genius of those first novels. History has shown that all the great novels were written before the author could legally rent a car in New York City, and were unsung in their time. And oh, Mrs. Poppy, the sun will just be rising over the hills ….


Andrew Sean Greer is the author of three novels (The Story of a Marriage, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, and The Path of Minor Planets) and a short story collection (How It Was for Me). His writings have won far too many awards to list here.


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