For a book whose author says casually that "this is a novel where not very much happens," The Story of a Marriage contains enough surprises that an interviewer must tread carefully for fear of depriving readers of some of the novel's great pleasures of discovery.
What Andrew Sean Greer seems to mean by his remark is that the scope of his narrative is intimate, the lives it describes in such resonate - often metaphorical - language are narrowly circumscribed. The Story of a Marriage is told by an old woman, Pearlie Cook, looking back on an event in 1953 that rocked her world.
Then again, this is the first time Greer has been interviewed about the novel, and he is just discovering how to think about and talk about a book he has spent the last four years producing. "I'm very curious to see what I'll say," he announces at the beginning of the conversation. Greer admits to being one of those writers who shows a work-in-progress to no one. In fact he makes up a story to tell people when they ask him what he is working on.
"I learned my lesson with Max Tivoli," Greer says during a call to his home in the Lower Haight district of San Francisco. The Confessions of Max Tivoli was Greer's critically acclaimed breakout novel, published in 2004. "When I would tell people it is about a man born in the body of an old man who gets younger, their faces would collapse with concern. It would make me think, what a bad idea for a novel, and it would put me off my writing. So I started saying it was a novel about Victorian San Francisco, and people would say, 'that sounds great,' and leave me alone." He says he described the current book as "a novel set in the '50s in San Francisco." True. But so minimal as to be almost meaningless.
Greer did not immediately launch himself into The Story of a Marriage after he completed The Confessions of Max Tivoli. Instead he began working on a project that proved to be too big. Casting about for "something realistic and domestic," he found himself returning again and again to a failed short story he had written years before called "The Ballad of Pearlie Cook." He finally decided the story had failed because it was in fact a novel.
The seed for that story came from a tale told to him by one of his family members. "It gives something, but not too much, away," Greer says carefully. "An elderly relative of mine who everyone considers sort of crazy, told me a story once about how in 1952 a family friend had taken her for a ride around Kentucky and stopped the car, turned to her, and said he had been her husband's lover for years. He wanted to go away with her husband. He said he would help her financially with their children, but he wanted the two of them to go away, and he needed her permission to do it. She said no. It was always the great regret of her life that she couldn't imagine saying yes. She couldn't imagine what life would be like for a poor woman in the '50s, alone, with two kids to raise. It became my job to imagine what if she had said yes. And because I wondered what would be the traps that would make my main character join forces with this man, I changed everything about her."
For one thing, he sets his story in San Francisco rather than Kentucky. Greer's family came from Kentucky but his parents, both scientists, worked in Washington, D.C., where he grew up. After attending Brown University, working in New York and getting an MFA from the University of Montana, Greer moved to Seattle to write. "It was cheap enough that I could sit in the house and lock myself in a room and write, but the rain started to get me down. It's one thing to be broke. But when you're broke and you feel trapped too, that's too much." He followed his twin brother to San Francisco and arrived at what he considers a lucky time, when many other young writers were moving to the city.
Greer wrote The Confessions of Max Tivoli and The Story of a Marriage in a former workshop he "rented in someone's basement six blocks uphill from where I live. This being San Francisco, it has a view of downtown from its window because it's so high up. It's a place where I can't do anything but work. I can't surf the web or read email. All I can do is read books or write books; both seem like a good use of my time. Napping also seems to happen."
Greer's 21st-century San Francisco is, of course, very different from Pearlie Cook's San Francisco of 1953. She and her husband, Holland, and their boy, Sonny, live in what is now called the Sunset district, but which on the day Charles "Buzz" Drumer showed up with his immoderate proposal was still referred to as the Outside Lands, a perfect place for this group of outsiders to inhabit.
Perfect, too, is Greer's moody evocation of a time that isn't yet what we think of as the 1950s and a place that isn't yet what we now think of as San Francisco. "There is a danger that you're just going to costume the whole thing and forget that you have a story about characters and real lives," Greer says about his months of research. "I didn't want it to be a novel about history, yet when I realized 1953 was the endgame of the Rosenbergs, the peak of McCarthyism and the end of the Korean War, a time when the papers said both that the end of the world is coming and that everything is going to be fine, I finally saw how these things related to my main character and went ahead."
Greer says he always tends to "overdo everything in the first draft because I have to write a lot to figure out how these events and characters come together thematically and as a story." But that is no longer a surprise to him. Nor is the hard work of editing and rewriting the manuscript.
However, comparing his effort on Max Tivoli to his work on this new novel, Greer confesses that he was quite "surprised to be drawn back into a plot which is intense and dramatic and about love and passion. I don't think of these as my main concerns, but the same questions of how you know another person and how you trust that someone loves you kept coming up. So I guess maybe they are."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.