The New Yorker rejected the short story about Pearlie twice before Andrew Sean Greer shelved it. He wrote The Confessions of Max Tivoli before blowing the dust off Pearlie again. He realized there was too much going on to be contained in a short story: A poor woman, Pearlie, discovers her husband, Holland, is in an on-going love affair with an old family friend. In this draft, his protagonist was furious, trying to piece it all together, very bitter. This just didn’t work for the story. Didn’t allow it to be flushed out, Greer says.
But that didn’t stop the travel-weary author from sharing, in an engaging talk for CSUS and California Lecture Series, bits of that old manuscript side by side with what is now poised to be his next best seller, The Story of a Marriage, the novel version of that original failed short story.
Like a master-writing class, the small audience was presented with illustrations about the development of a story. Greer read from his original draft and then discussed how he changed the characters and the story for the novel. It was a refreshing way to see an author on book-tour. So often they are cocky or blase about the process, as if no one can match their genius. But Greer was warm and casual, and very entertaining, despite his flight delays from New York and his rushed ride from San Francisco up to Sacramento moments before he was scheduled to speak.
Currently working behind Patience and Fortitude, the two marble lions that grace the entrance of the New York Public Library, (he is there on a fellowship for nine months, with an office and a research assistant), Greer is researching a new novel set in New York between the two World Wars. “Research,” he says, “builds the novel.” But he also advises writers to research as much as possible then “put none of it in. Just say almost nothing.” A writer can get overwhelmed by research, he said.
I can see this, for certain, as it is what happened to me as I attempted historical research for a story kernel. I kept trying to add references to the economy, or what the President was up to, or who was playing in the movie theaters. I lost the story and gave it up.
Greer was full of entertaining anecdotes, including the fact that he planned to have Max Tivoli be in the midst of the San Francisco Earthquake in 1908. He planned the character around this event, the story around it, and he didn’t want to let go of it when it wasn’t working. He had to take his character out of the huge historical event, leave the flashy details, and literally have his character sleep through it in order for the story to come together.
As a writer, I found this lecture to be really helpful and inspirational.
As writers, Greer said, it is our job to figure out the half-told stories. I really like the way he put that.