Garth Greenwell on How a Musical Education Informs His Prose
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Garth Greenwell is this week’s guest. His latest novel, Cleanness, is out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
From the episode:
Garth Greenwell: When I teach students prose writing, style is something that we talk about a lot because it is something that I care about a lot. Style that is functioning at a high level, what that means is it gives an impression of a whole life condensed to a voice. When I talk to my students about how to improve as stylists, we do talk about mechanical and technical things but I actually think style is the least willed part of being a writer. I think if you try to engineer it, it can sound very artificial, like someone trying to put on a British accent.
I do think there are things you can do to open your style up to more of the languages and influences and the aesthetics that make up your life. For me, my first education in art was in classical music as an opera singer. … That was really the thing that allowed me to escape a world that didn’t want me to exist. … Kentucky in the late 80s/early 90s in the pre-Internet age was not a great place to be a queer kid. I was a really lost kid, and this guy [my choir director] in an incredible act of generosity gave me art. That’s what allowed me to find a world where I could exist and feel like I had a place. After music, my second education in art was in poetry. All my literary education was in poetry.
For twenty years I was writing poetry and never thinking about writing fiction. When I started writing my first novel, What Belongs to You, I was living in Sofia, Bulgaria, teaching high school there. I started writing these sentences. I didn’t think of it as writing a novel but writing sentences. I had no idea how to write prose. I had never written imaginative prose, and I think that I wrote with the tools of a poet and of a musician. All of my ideas of narrative, of tension, and of structure are musical and operatic, and that’s for better and for worse. When I feel like structurally a piece of writing isn’t working, what I turn to are musical analogies. I won’t feel that there is a gap in plot or a gap in character development, but I will feel like there is a chord missing in this harmonic progression.
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Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, A Public Space, and VICE, and he has written criticism for the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review, among others. He lives in Iowa City.