Delving into what belongs

Delving into what belongs

Garth Greenwell took a long path to Iowa City.

He studied opera as an undergraduate, earned graduate degrees in poetry and English from Washington University in St. Louis and Harvard University, respectively, then, nearly a decade later, arrived at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

He is back in Iowa City today for a reading of his first novel, What Belongs to You, at 7 p.m. at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St.

“It turned out that it was just the biggest stroke of luck of my life, to come to Iowa,” Greenwell said.

It was a hesitant return to academia for Greenwell, who abandoned a Ph.D. program in English at Harvard for Bulgaria, where he taught English at the American College of Sofia for four years.

“I wanted to be an artist and not a scholar, that’s really what it was about,” Greenwell said.

His creatively crucial retreat to the Balkans provided much of the material for his critically acclaimed novella Mitko, the opening section of his new book.

The book follows an unnamed narrator weaving through the Soviet-era architecture of Sofia, on route to the bathrooms beneath the National Palace of Culture, a spot infamously frequented by male hustlers.

There, the narrator meets Mitko, a tall, strong, strapping man, and he decides to pay for sex.

“What seems like a very clean, easy, clear-cut transaction actually becomes this very messy human involvement between these two people,” Greenwell said. “The weird alchemy of literature is that through the most intense burrowing into the particular, you can arrive at the universal.”

The novel refused to be rushed and came together on its own time, sometimes one sentence at a time. It was crafted in Sofia between 4:30 a.m. and dawn, when Greenwell set off for a day of teaching.

“It was really the most intensely private experience of my life,” he said. “Sometimes I would go more than a year without showing anything to anybody, even my closest friends.”

Now that the book is out and early reviews have lavished Greenwell with praise [Publisher’s Weekly called it “The first great novel of 2016”], he must come to terms with his once-private project moving very much into the public eye.

“It’s a bizarre feeling to have that private thing become public, public in a way nothing I’ve ever written has been public before,” he said.

Greenwell is working on the follow-up, a collection of short stories “exploring places and characters that fit into the interstices of the novel.”

Next week, Greenwell will embark on a five-month nationwide book tour, but for now, he wants to enjoy the moment and celebrate the book’s completion with his friends.

“My publisher asked if I wanted to have the launch in Iowa City or in New York; I thought it was a silly question,” he said. “Of course, I wanted to have my launch at Prairie Lights. I think it’s one of the world’s great book stores, and it’s really kind of been my spiritual home in Iowa City.”

 

WORDS

Garth Greenwell reading

When: 7 p.m. today

Where: Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque

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