Andrew Sean Greer, and Arthur Less, Get Lost in America

The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer discusses his new road-trip novel and answers W’s Culture Diet questionnaire.

by Katherine Cusumano

An illustration of Andrew Sean Greer
Illustration by Ashley Peña

It was Labor Day weekend, and the writer Andrew Sean Greer had just arrived in Bangor, Maine, en route to a wedding—only to learn that the rental car he had booked to drive to the venue was nowhere to be found. How could such a thing happen? Perhaps, Greer suspected, other holiday travelers were having too much fun on vacation and hadn’t returned their vehicles yet? (“Who cares! Travel disasters can be wonderful!” he recently wrote in an Instagram post, describing an entirely unrelated snafu.)

In the end, he made it to the wedding—a lengthy Uber ride later. And when we got on the phone earlier this month to discuss his new novel, Less Is Lost (out September 20), it felt appropriate for this saga to quickly come up in conversation. It was the kind of thing, I thought, that might happen to the novel’s protagonist, Arthur Less. In Less Is Lost, Arthur sets off in a camper van (name: Rosina) across the American Southwest and Deep South, accompanied by a curmudgeonly science-fiction writer and a pug.

Less Is Lost is a follow-up to 2017’s funny, poignant, Pulitzer Prize winner Less. But when Greer began working on what would become Less Is Lost in 2018, he didn’t initially envision it as a sequel. “I was writing a different novel, a road-trip novel, and struggling—as I often do—with how to tell it properly,” he says. “I wanted to talk about America, which is very hard to talk about.” The fish-out-of-water protagonist and wry, perceptive narrator of Less offered a way into the story he wanted to write.

Here, Greer discusses the road trip that inspired Less Is Lost and answers W’s Culture Diet questionnaire.

What got you interested in talking about America in this novel?

Well, after the 2016 election, I thought… I always start a book with what I’m afraid of, and I write toward it. So Less, I was afraid of turning 50 and afraid of different kinds of love. This book, I was afraid of Alabama [laughs]. I was like, “Okay, then let’s go there.” So I rented an RV for six weeks and traveled through the Southwest and Deep South, just following that novelist’s instinct. I love to be in uncomfortable, unlikely settings because it feels like I’m having the right reactions. I’m turning on my novelist’s ear and listening to those people instead of listening to myself.

How did you come away from that trip? Did it abate your fear or reinforce it?

It was hard to think how it was going to be funny. This was before the attack on the Congress and things. I met a lot of people in great pain. We didn’t talk politics. I kept my same rule that I had in Less, which is that the joke is on Arthur Less. It never ridicules the place he’s visiting. He’s the thing out of place. If I keep that rule, I can keep a steady tone. I’m not good at writing anger or polemics. But still, in this book—maybe it’s hidden from readers a little bit, which is on purpose—there’s a racial justice story, the fictions of whiteness. I hope that if I have a light and certain joyous tone, people get these messages in the background and they come out a little changed.

Was there anything you saw or experienced on that road trip that couldn’t make it into the book, but you were trying to find a way to make it fit?

There were lots of things, especially in the Deep South. I was followed by flocks of pelicans on a ferry ride along the Gulf of Mexico that was absolutely beautiful—to a shrimp festival that had the most disgusting food I’ve ever tasted. And no shrimp! Or, you know, attending a queer pride festival in a small town. Some of that was really heartening, to see that queer people were everywhere in places that I hadn’t thought about. People were living openly and confronting their communities or being accepted by them.

Let’s go on to the Culture Diet questions. What time do you wake up in the morning and what's the first thing you do?

I wake up at 6:30 or 7 AM and I make coffee and head straight to my novel. I’m not allowed to read the news, look at emails, for just an hour. I set a timer for myself. Coming right out of that dream state and not getting distracted by awful stuff or getting enraged by things or answering my mom’s questions about a recipe, I can get half of my day’s work done in that hour. But then I relent, because you can’t look away from the world these days.

After that hour, what’s the first thing you read?

The Washington Post. That’s my hometown paper, and since they got such an infusion of cash, for better or worse, from Bezos, their political reporting is the best. Then, it falls apart once it goes to dining and entertainment.

Where do you get those, then?

The New York Times, and then it’s on to Instagram, and the day is lost.

What books are on your bedside table right now?

I’m in Maine, so I have my friend’s bedside table. I’m in the kids room so last night, I read half of The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. I haven’t read that in 20 years or something. I stayed up till 3 in the morning. It was such a joyous experience—it was like being a teenager. Back at home, I have Karen Joy Fowler’s new book, Booth. It’s the next book I’m going to pick up.

Do you remember the last movie you saw in theaters?

Yup, it was Top Gun: Maverick. I watched it with my whole family. Of course, my mom hated it. I’m the age where I watched Top Gun as a teenager, and I hated it. I was like, why are these guys fighting each other? I don’t understand male politics. But this time, I watched it knowing what it is, which is a kind of right-wing propaganda. My brother turned to me, and he’s like, “That was the best movie I’ve ever seen.” It pulled up that nonsense view of America and maleness so perfectly. Now, I’m at an age where I understand that fiction and I can appreciate that storytelling while rejecting its repercussions. My Italian boyfriend, however, was like, “This is offensive towards the rest of the world.” Which it is! Of course it is, it’s Top Gun!

What’s the last song or album you had on repeat?

Lizzo. I’ve got the album, Special, but I mostly listen to “About Damn Time.” That really just made my summer. Even in Italy, it was constantly on the radio. Sometimes I wake up and try to just dance to a song first thing in the morning, if I’m alone. It’s always Lizzo or Beyoncé these days.

How do you feel about the new Beyoncé?

I have to admit, I was listening to it while I was just at Burning Man. You can’t avoid it at Burning Man at a camp of all gay men. For me it was really a joyous experience of picking up ’90s references.

Do you go to Burning Man every year?

I haven’t been in five years, but it’s my 13th time.

I’ve never done Burning Man, but from what I understand, the different camps have themes—what’s your thing?

This is so embarrassing, but apparently I’m telling every reporter. Our camp, we serve Bloody Marys and bacon at 11 a.m., and we go out into the street and try to bring people in for Bloody Marys and bacon, to meet strangers. People hang out in our lounge and chat with each other and we bring the bacon around.

What's the last theater performance — be it play, musical, whatever—that you went to?

It was in New York City, the Spring Awakening reunion in November. All the cast members came back for a concert to re-perform it. The show is teenagers and their sexual awakening in the 19th century. Of course, now they’re all in their thirties and pregnant. It was a show that meant a lot to me when it came out. I think it did to a certain generation. And to see them all as adults—you know, Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff, who now have some celebrity, seeing them make out on stage when now we know he’s gay, it’s all really sweet. And just being in the theater at all was unbelievable.

Do you believe in astrology?

I do not, but I certainly know a lot about it. Many friends throughout my life have taught me much about it, and many of my students have been very interested in it. I was raised to be curious about other people’s belief systems without critiquing them. So I love it, but I always reject the idea that there are types of people. I like to meet people individually. So I don’t like to know their sign or their Myers-Briggs number. I find that gets in the way of me actually knowing them. But apparently for other people, it’s a useful tool. I don’t think it’s bad. It’s beautiful.

Do you know what your sign is?

I’m a Scorpio—and proud of it.

What’s the last thing that you do before you go to bed?

I read something boring on Wikipedia. During the pandemic, I talked often with my twin brother but since we were nine hours apart it was hard. So I would read Wikipedia about the most boring things I could think of, which turned out to be Roman antiquity politics and the Byzantine Empire. Two years later, when I saw my brother again, he said, “You know, every night I’ve been reading about the Roman republic and the Byzantine Empire to go to sleep.”

Wait, really?

Yes, really.

Just by coincidence, you ended up reading the same boring articles to go to sleep?

That’s exactly right.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.