Tuesday, October 18, 2011

MITKO: a conversation with author Garth Greenwell

I am really excited to share an interview with writer Garth Greenwell. Garth teaches at the American College in Sofia and is the author of MITKO, his first novella that won him the Miami University Press 2011 Novella Contest Award. The book is about a young American man who moves to Sofia and pays Mitko for sex. What's meant to be a simple sexual transaction soon evolves into a complicated relationship. MITKO is a beautifully written story, one reviewer called it lyrical and I completely agree. It spans a whirwind of emotions and will have you thinking about lust, and love, and transgression in a way that is both familiar and totally unnerving. Truly, truly a thrill! Our conversation started months ago in July and was interrupted by cross-Atlantic trips and new jobs (mine), teaching crises and bouts of flu (his). But it's here now and I am so happy to be introducing you to Garth and his work.

Photo by Ricardo Moutinho Ferreira
I just read your book and it's been a weird day as a result. I keep going back and forth between wanting to curl up in bed and listen to Alexi Murdoch (i.e. weep) AND making out with my man. The story is so visceral... I don't know how else to describe it... it had a very PHYSICAL effect on me. I am trying to figure out why that is the case. It's not the sex scenes, is it?

First of all, this is the best response I've heard to the book so far. I do want it to provoke a visceral response, and the two poles of your reaction seem to me like the ideal ones. So thank you. It's difficult for me to talk about the sources of that response in my own work, since however I try I can't really read it as anything but its author. In the books that I love, though, and that I think influenced the writing of this one, there's something not just in the subject matter but in the style that provokes from me a particularly visceral response. I'm drawn to long sentences that circle back on themselves, that interrogate and correct and doubt themselves, and in my own experience of reading other authors' works I often find that there's something about such syntax that I register in the body, a kind of pelagic cadence that in my experience is intensely sensuous. This might be especially the case, oddly enough, when the content of the sentences is most abstract. When I read Thomas Mann, for instance, I find myself thrilled in a not entirely unerotic way by the architecture of his sentences, which structure a sometimes parsing or quibbling thought that keeps falling back on itself. I may be in a minority of readers in finding a book like The Magic Mountain quite sexy. In Mitko, I like the idea that this kind of cerebral syntax can be put to use toward representing an experience that is intensely bodily and sexual; there's an invigorating tension for me in what we often take to be the division between the cerebral and the lustful, categories that, in my own experience, have never stayed separate for very long.

All that said, I do hope that the sex scenes are a little bit responsible for any physical effects on the book's readers.

I really like your notes on style-- "sentences that circle back on themselves, that interrogate and correct and doubt themselves" and "parsing or quibbling that thought keeps falling back on itself"-- because, oddly enough, that's exactly how I experienced your main character. The young men is very self-aware and introspective, both confident and doubtful at the same time. You do such a fantastic job of conveying the tension between his desire to remain level-headed and his lust for Mitko. At the end it is clear that the attempt to keep them separate is indeed futile. It seems to me that had you been writing a more conventional story of heterosexual longing and desire, you would have felt pressure to resolve the relationship in a far more straightforward manner: he would have probably gotten the girl. So that makes me wonder, did you set off to write a story about a homosexual relationship or did you begin writing about the weird play between love and resentment that presented itself in the form of a story about gay lovers?

In some sense this question didn't arise for me as I wrote the book. Mitko began with a place-- Bulgaria, where I've lived for the last two years--and with a desire to represent both the place and some of the lives that I've encountered here. I especially wanted to explore the lives of gay men here, where those lives are offered far less scope than in the States. So the sexuality of the protagonists was a given in the conception of the book: I did begin with the intention of writing about a gay relationship, but it's also true that I wanted that relationship to explore more "universal" issues of desire, resentment, predation, love.

But of course it's always difficult to talk about the relationship between the particular circumstances of a narrative and its more universal resonance. I recently received an email from a friend who had just read the book, and she remarked on the way in which the narrator will at moments generalize in a fairly expansive way, saying "we" and "us" as he reflects on his own experience of desire. This reader asked if this were a conscious attempt to transcend the limits of a story about two gay men to arrive at something more universal. But it wouldn't occur to me to think that there could be a tension between "gay" and "universal" in this sense. When I think of the books that have seemed most revelatory for me of the nature of desire, nearly all of them involve narratives the particularities of which should be alienating: Lolita is a study in cruelty; Death in Venice, like Nabokov's novel, takes us deep into the psyche of a pedophile; Frank Bidart's astonishing long poem, "The Second Hour of the Night," elaborates on the incestuous tale of Myrrha and Cinyrus to harrowing effect.

In all of these cases, the particularities of the narrative highlight or put pressure on certain dynamics that are present more generally in erotic pursuit; they're extreme cases that serve to magnify a particular component or detail of desire. I hope that the circumstances in the narrative of Mitko function in a similar way. The fact that the relationship between Mitko and the narrator begins from and perhaps never transcends a financial transaction, that the needs they seek to assuage in each other are so different in kind (the narrator wants sex with a hint of metaphysics; Mitko wants money), sparks the resentment that complicates or competes with or maybe to some extent fuels the narrator's desire. I do think resentment is, always or almost always, a component of desire and of love, if only because desire and love entail (or have entailed for me) a relaxing of defenses, a laying open of the self before the beloved, an experience of (even if slight, even if delicious) injury. Who, having given the gift of himself, can receive an adequate recompense? Who in love can ever be treated well enough?

Your last response was delayed because one of your students at ACS wrote "Death to all faggots" on the FB wall of another student who participated in Sofia Pride and then another one cloned your email address and sent a love poem to one of your straight male Bulgarian colleagues. So, of course, I've got to ask: did your book prompt all that acting out or did those sorts of things in some way move you to write Mitko? Obviously, we are reading fiction here so please don't feel like you have to explain that your book is not a memoir.

No, I don't think that these incidents were linked to the book's publication. In the last two years, the American College of Sofia has had an increasingly large contingent at Pride, which is wonderful, and I suppose it's only to be expected that there should be backlash. The email incident seems to me fairly dismissible, the sort of stupid (and fairly harmless) thing one does when one's a kid. The post on Facebook, which several of our students saw as a direct attack, is something else entirely. LGBT kids in Bulgaria, as you know, are extraordinarily vulnerable, and it was devastating for me to see the effect of this attack. Not only did an ACS student post this on another student's wall; before it could be removed, three ACS students had pressed "like." One of them was a student of mine, which was both heartbreaking and a humbling reminder of the limits of moral influence.

I don't think Mitko was directly shaped by such particular incidents of homophobic targeting, though it was very much written in response to my experiences in a community profoundly shaped by hatred and shame. In things that I have been writing since finishing the first novella, though, I've found myself addressing these issues more directly.

Speaking of targeting and hatred, what is it about our emails always crossing paths when big tumultuous events take place in Bulgaria?! These most recent events (note: I am referring to the events in Katunitsa) make me realize how much I loved the Bulgaria of MITKO. You do such a wonderful job of introducing your reader to a place that is both charming and homophobic... not unlike Mitko himself. You do that very nicely and with great dose of respect, not a trace of condescension. I remember being similarly surprised by Cynthia Phoel's book, Cold Snap (if you haven't read it, I hightly recommend it). What is it about being a foreigner that makes us such generous observers, you think? Did you have to try?

It was immensely important for me, in writing Mitko, to try to convey my experience of this place accurately, to try to represent the place itself and not an idea of it. I didn't want to write a book of that kind of travel writing wherein the primary appeal of a place lies in its exoticism. I didn't want to write a book of travel writing at all; I hate traveling, and when I have to travel I usually find that I shut down those parts of myself that feel most engaged with the imaginative act of writing. Instead, I wanted to write a book about living in a place, about trying to make a kind of home here. Sofia is endlessly fascinating to me, troubled (as recent events have chillingly highlighted) and beautiful at once. I didn't make any special effort to seek out the beauties of the place. Even in Mladost, where I live, among the very bleak Soviet-era apartment blocks there are lovely things to be found, sudden effusions of wildness; and of course there's always Vitosha, the beautiful mountain that looks almost impossibly close these autumn mornings.

I do think that familiarity can dull one to such things, and part of the joy of moving to a foreign place is the freshness it gives one's eyes. But of course this fresh-sightedness, even or especially in the landscapes most familiar to us, is one of the tasks of the writer. Each year that I've taught in Sofia, the most exciting assignment I've given is a project my twelfth graders do as we read Joyce's Dubliners. We study some of Joyce's techniques for representing the city, and then I ask them to use those same techniques in stories set in Sofia. I make them go out and make sure that they describe each street, each building as accurately as they can, and even make them document this with photographs and maps. Each year, I've been extraordinarily moved by the results of this assignment, and several students have told me that they see Sofia differently after writing their stories, that this city, which so many of them take for granted or want to escape, seems a place richer with significance than it did to them before. I don't think that's because the engagement of the literary imagination projects something onto the place that wasn't there before; instead, I think it's that a literary way of looking lets us see through the ideas we accrue about the landscapes most familiar to us, allowing us to see them more fully and justly, more open to the meanings of the place.

On that note... I have a feature on my blog titled Good Things Recently. I try to write it as often as possible but I *especially* try to put together a list when I am not doing so well. So... despite being crazy busy at work and getting your first dose of autumn flu... could you list five good things in your life recently?

1) I write in the very early mornings, getting up around 4:30 to get an hour or so of work in before school. Fall has arrived in Sofia in the last couple of weeks, which means that this early morning ritual now involves wrapping myself in blankets with a hot cup of tea and my notebook. Once I'm settled, my cat cries until I lift him up and make room for him to fall asleep on my lap, a warm purring weight under the blankets. Domestic bliss.

2) My Tender Matador, by Pedro Lemebel. I just read this Chilean novel, published in a brilliant translation by Katherine Silver in 2005, and was entirely blown away. I'm not sure I've ever read a book in which the personal and the political are so closely and seamlessly intertwined, so that the infatuation of an aging drag queen (The Queen of the Corner) for a young revolutionary planning the assassination of Pinochet leads, without a hint of preaching, to the awakening of her own deeper awareness and compassion. Daringly, Lemebel gives an intimate portrait of Pinochet himself, counterpointing his consciousness with that of the Queen of the Corner. And it is written with a kind of camp majesty, elevating the ironic codes of gay subcultures to an extraordinary poetry. The only comparison I can think of for the poetic energy of this book is Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers, but Lemebel's work is less death-haunted, more textured and colorful and warm, invested in a world it finds dear.

3) Zola Jesus, Conatus. Nika Roza Danilova's voice sounds like the operatically-trained ghost of a post-punk chanteuse wailing in an industrial landscape, though perhaps that doesn't quite convey its sheer gorgeousness. Her new album is both her most accessible and her best.

4) Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho (I don't want to go back alone). This 17-minute Brazilian short film, directed by Daniel Ribeiro, just won the international Iris Prize for best LGBT short. The version currently available on YouTube doesn't have subtitles, but you don't need to understand Portuguese to love this achingly beautiful film about a blind teenage boy who falls in love with a new student at his school. Beautifully filmed and acted, it feels of a piece with David Levithan's wonderful novels for young adults, inhabiting a world in which being gay doesn't need to make one a victim, and isn't a source of guilt or shame or hand-wringing. Ribeiro's film is beautiful, sweet, and hopeful, capturing some essential quality of adolescent longing.

5) Тиквеник. The best part of fall in Bulgaria is this delicious, pumpkin-filled, sugar-powdered pastry, a seasonal variant on the year-round banitsa that will soon be sold on nearly every corner. It's as good as pumpkin pie but much easier to eat on the move. I can't wait for my first piece of the season.


MITKO is available for purchase through Amazon.


  1. Beautiful interview. Thank you so much! You should do these more often.

  2. Thank you! I am glad you enjoyed it! I would love to do more interviews with my favorite authors. I will keep trying.

  3. You can purchase this beautiful book on Amazon:


    -Mitko Fan

  4. Thank you for your note, Mitko Fan ;)
    I added in the link to the bottom of the interview!

  5. "Who in love can ever be treated well enough?" ... what a great question!
    And what a GREAT interview, Petya!
    I think I developed a little crush on Garth just reading this. I wish I had more teachers like him back in the day when I was at ACS ...
    Unfortunately (And I assume fortunately for the author) amazon.co.uk is out of stock, but I will be on the waiting list for MITKO - I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

  6. Moni:

    I would be more than happy to mail you my copy. It's easier for me to replace it and I *want* you to read it. You only need to promise to pass it on to somebody else after you are done! Email me your mailing address!

  7. This was a great interview Petya, I'll definitely try to find that book!

    I recently discovered your blog and already love it! I added you to my blogroll. Keep up the great work and check out my blog too - its about bridging Sofia and Boston and like you, I also write about life far from home. http://zikata.wordpress.com/
    All best!

  8. Militza:

    Thank you for your note! I read your blog, too! Your most recent post about going apple-picking made me miss my grandparents' garden. :)