"I never saw further than the end of a scene": Garth Greenwell, Julie Buntin and Gabe Habash on Writing
This month on WMFA, a podcast where writers talk writing
I started WMFA to talk with other writers about writing: to hear, in the middle of what can be such a lonely endeavor, what someone else is thinking about their work. Every conversation has left me energized in different ways: ideas, inspirations, perspectives. Sometimes these gifts are new, fresh approaches that blow dust off an old problem or tired pattern of thought; sometimes they’re familiar, and then the familiarity itself is a salve, a reminder that the worries, fears and doubts that plague one writer usually plague the rest of us, too.
“It’s pretty mysterious to me, I don’t fully understand. When I went to Bulgaria, I finished a manuscript of poems and put it away and thought I would not write for a while, that I would let the will fill back up. It was a surprise to me when I started hearing sentences that I knew were not broken into lines.
Bulgaria was key to it, and the peculiar relationship you have to your own language in a place where you’re speaking another language. But I also think it was a process that began years earlier when I began to work as a high school teacher. Going from the solitude of academic work to being thrust into this intricate relationship with 70 adolescents. I became really interested in their lives, which means I became really interested in their stories. High school teaching shifted me from a more purely lyrical or abstract way of approaching literature to a more narrative way of approaching literature, and a real interest in other people’s lives.
“The book really begins with place, Bulgaria and the bathrooms beneath the National Palace of Culture where the novel begins—which is a real place in Sofia, Sofia’s most notorious cruising place, where gay men have sex with one another. I was fascinated by that place, I was fascinated by the people I met there, I was fascinated by the ways in which the codes of cruising in Bulgaria in 2009 or 2010 were the same as the codes of cruising I learned in public parks in Kentucky in the 1990s. As I got to know people in this community and this cruising place, I was fascinated by the ways in which their stories reminded me of the stories of the first gay men I met in Kentucky.”
“I did not see very far ahead as I was writing the book. I wrote it sentence by sentence, I never saw further than the end of a scene. Really, I was thinking of it as writing sentences. I felt like I was just feeling my forward sentence by sentence, really in the dark.”
“The first year I taught high school, I didn’t write a word. And I remember at the end of that second semester just being like, whoa: If I don’t do something, I’m never gonna write again. I found that I was too exhausted after teaching, so it was the only possibility. And it did mean making some sacrifices. I was really committing to teaching and I was really committed to keeping those two hours, and that was all I had room for.”
Gabe: “One of my favorite writers is Barry Hannah, and he has this quote about why he likes the first-person [point of view], and it’s because he thinks the third-person leads a lot to the feeling of unearned wisdom, and with first-person you just have to rely on the single character’s perspective. That was a helpful limitation to think about. In terms of the coming of age and having a character in his early 20s, that was a story I felt I’d earned the right to tell. The other thing that was interesting to me about that time was it’s just a period where you feel more alive and the experiences you have are heightened.”
Julie: “I did lose a friend to complications related to substance abuse when I was in my early 20s, and we had been really close as teenagers and up to the same stuff. I was not a good teenager. At the same time, though, even in that outline of what happened in real life, that’s not Cat and Marlena’s story at all. Cat and Marlena know each other for a really brief period of time, and the way the death happens is entirely different, Marlena’s family is entirely different than my friend’s family. What does feel authentic to me, or true as far as I can quantify what’s true in a fictional context, is the feelings that are motivating the story, the thrill of doing something self-destructive for the first time and where the line is when those experiences start to get out of control. I did have some connection to that sense as a teenager, and I wanted to write about it.”
Julie: “I grew up in northern Michigan, in the Petoskey area, that’s sort of the place I was thinking of in a lot of ways. What struck me growing up and strikes me about that area still—and it’s a place that I really love and I think is beautiful—but at the same time, there’s a lot of economic tension built into the fact of the place because it’s a resort town, basically. There’s a number of very exclusive summer communities that are empty like eight month of the year, and they’re mansions, and they’re totally different than the lifestyles of the people who support those houses. I found that vey interesting about this place, that it had those two worlds in one, and where they intersected and where they didn’t. I do think that I was looking around in contemporary fiction and not always finding enough satisfying stories about people for whom money was a primary anxiety.”
Gabe: “I knew the voice would be the main engine, I figured that out very early on, and when I sat down to do the first page I had it ready to go. Some of the other elements I was still researching as I was writing the first draft, but the voice was always there.
The opening page has—it’s not the actual opening, but the original opening was his line that’s now in the third or fourth paragraph on the first paragraph about internal age. That was the first thing I thought of. He says, ‘I believe in wrestling, I believe in the United States and I am a motherfucking astronaut.’ That was maybe one of the first things.”
“I had never wrestled, I still have never wrestled. Wrestling was always interesting to me because of how separate and adjacent it exists from more mainstream sports and sports that are more popular, even compared to other ‘fringe’ sports like cross country that don’t exist in the common consciousness on a professional level. Wrestling is an inherently dramatic sport because of the weight-cutting, and it basically permanently deforms your ears, so I was drawn to what sort of person would commit to something that is so demanding and unforgiving.”
Courtney Balestier's writing has appeared in The New Yorker online, Lucky Peach, the New York Times, Oxford American, New York, and Wired. She has been anthologized in Cornbread Nation 7: The Best of Southern Food Writing and nominated for a James Beard Foundation Journalism Award. She is a writing editorial board member of Looking at Appalachia. A native West Virginian, she is at work on a novel about identity, class and the Appalachian "Hillbilly Highway" migration to Detroit, where she is currently based. She also hosts the writing podcast WMFA.