Award-winning author Garth Greenwell answers our quick-fire questions

We spoke to Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You and Cleanness, about his desert island book, special pens and the most important lessons to learn in life. 

Garth Greenwell’s second book Cleanness was published to just as much acclaim as his award-winning debut novel What Belongs to You. Cleanness was chosen as a 2020 book of the year by the New Yorker, Daily Telegraph, Observer and Irish Times, and Lisa Taddeo, author of Three Women, called it ‘stunning, provocatively revelatory and atmospherically profound.’ Garth’s UK editor Kris Doyle spoke to Garth in-depth about Cleanness here, and also had the chance to ask the author some quick-fire questions about books, his writing process and his plans for after lockdown. 

KD: What was the last book you read?

GG: Jean Stafford, The Mountain Lion

KD: Who is your favourite writer? And which book of theirs should someone read first? 

GG: There are many answers to this question! But: Henry James. The best way in, I think, is the original Portrait of a Lady (not the New York Edition first), paired with Michael Gorra’s brilliant Portrait of a Novel.

KD: Related, but not the same, what’s your desert island book: the one you’d take along with the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare to the proverbial desert island if you were stuck? 

GG: Truly: the biggest poetry anthology I could carry. Also Middlemarch

KD: While we’re at it, do you know what your desert island song and luxury item would be? 

GG: Song – this is cheating – Strauss’s Four Last Songs, sung by Jessye Norman. Luxury item: why would I pack a luxury item instead of another book?

KD: Do you need anything to be able to write: like a special pen, or a place you have to sit, or any other props? 

GG: It’s not strictly a need, but there is a pen I like to write with: a very cheap disposable pen that alas is not available in the States. Whenever I’m in Bulgaria I buy boxes and boxes of them. And I need a cheap notebook, the cheaper the better. What Belongs To You was written on 50-cent schoolkids’ notebooks I bought at a stall on the way to work. 

KD: Are there any parts of writing you don’t like? For example, writing dialogue?

GG: So both of these statements are true: on one hand, I hate everything about writing, it makes me absolutely miserable; on the other, my only experience of real contentment is when I am working in the middle of a long project, adding a few pages every day. I don’t know how both of those statements can be true, but they are.

KD: Are you part of a writing community or do you do it all on your own? 

GG: Drafting for me is solitary – I can’t imagine showing anyone work in progress before I have a complete draft. I love working months or years on something without showing it to anyone. Once I have a draft I have a small circle of scattered friends I share it with, and then my agent, and then my editor.

KD: Do you have a favourite word? If so, what is it?

GG: I don’t have a favourite word in English. In Bulgarian, my favourite word is lyastovitsa, which means swallow (the bird); in Spanish, it’s murciélago, which means bat (the mammal). My partner, Luis, is Spanish, and he is horrified by this fact.

KD: What single thing would improve the quality of your life? 

GG: Moving to Lisbon, the most beautiful city in the world. 

KD: What trait do you most deplore in yourself? 

GG: Kris! There are too many to choose from! 

KD: What did you want to be when you were a child imagining your adult life?

GG: A ninja. 

KD: What’s the most precious thing you own? 

GG: Luis was friends with the poet Mark Strand late in Strand’s life, and we have a handwritten poem dedicated to Luis framed in our kitchen. It’s not really mine, I guess, but it’s among the most precious things in our house. 

KD: What’s the most important lesson life has taught you? 

GG: There is no ground for righteousness in human life. We are all implicated in the evils of existence, we are all neck-deep in the shit, we should all hesitate in judging or condemning other human beings.

KD: What are you doing for the rest of the day, after you answer my final question? 

GG: Writing an essay due terrifyingly soon! And then tonight Luis and I will continue working our way through the Criterion Bergman box set, which has been my primary quarantine solace.

KD: Sorry, one last thing because I can’t resist: what will be the first thing you do when quarantine is lifted? 

GG: I will seek out beloved friends and give them the longest hugs imaginable. 

KD: Note to readers: Garth’s hugs are the best, truly world-famous!


by Garth Greenwell

Book cover for Cleanness

In Sofia, Bulgaria, an American teacher grapples with the intimate encounters that have marked his years abroad as he prepares to leave the country he has come to call home. A queer student’s confession recalls his own first love, a stranger’s seduction devolves into paternal sadism, and a romance with a younger man opens, and heals, old wounds. Each echo reveals startling insights about what it means to seek connection. Around him, Sofia stirs with hope and impending upheaval. Expanding the world of Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, this is the story of a life transformed by the discovery and loss of love. 

What Belongs to You

by Garth Greenwell

Book cover for What Belongs to You

After a one off meeting in a public bathroom, a charismatic young hustler and an American teacher begin an intimate, intense, and unnerving relationship. What Belongs to You is a powerful and erotic debut novel, which explores how being rejected for being who you are shapes the way you love, and the difficulty of growing up as a gay man in Southern America in the 1990s.