Between-States: Conversations About Bardo and Life
In Tibetan Buddhism, “bardo” is a between-state. The passage from death to rebirth is a bardo, as well as the journey from birth to death. The conversations in “Between-States” explore bardo concepts like acceptance, interconnectedness, and impermanence in relation to children and parents, marriage and friendship, and work and creativity, illuminating the possibilities for discovering new ways of seeing and finding lasting happiness as we travel through life.
On a recent summer afternoon, novelist Andrew Sean Greer spoke with me from Tuscany, where he was visiting an ailing friend in her 90s. “These may not be her last days,” he said, “but they may be my last days with her. I’m here to be present for whatever may be happening now, and to be joyous with my friend because she’s the person who taught me to try to make a funny story out of everything.”
Greer won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for Less, the comic story of Arthur Less, a struggling gay novelist on the cusp of 50 who’s traveling the world to overcome romantic heartbreak. The sequel, Less Is Lost (2022), narrates Arthur’s further adventures, this time as he journeys across the US to escape relationship and money problems. With humor and pathos, the novels explore love and loss, time and aging. The author of seven novels, Greer has received the California Book Award, an NEA grant, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has taught at Stanford and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1970 and raised in Rockville, Maryland, he divides his time between California and Italy.
In our wide-ranging conversation, Greer and I talked about how coming out at 19 changed his life, what made him turn to humor after writing serious novels, and why he likes happy endings.
Bardo is about living an authentic life. When you were 19 and home from college for winter break, you came out to your parents. What was that like? This is such a great thing to talk about for me. I was lucky to be gay because it gave me an opportunity to separate from everyone’s version of who I was supposed to be, and gave me an awareness of when something isn’t right for me. At that time, 1989, it was such a giant thing to say you were gay. Everyone took it as if I were saying I was from outer space.
It was hard but also incredibly liberating for me—and for my mother, who came out to me right after I came out. She was raised in a strict Southern Baptist household in white America and raised me in a similar way. We both grew up with rigid ideas of what you’re allowed to do, and both of us let go of those ideas when they felt so uncomfortable they burned.
By the time I was 17 or 18, it had become intolerable. Being gay just wasn’t in the air enough for me to be able to pick out what was going on, and I was having suicidal thoughts, a crisis of authenticity. Since then, I’ve been very aware of the feeling of inauthenticity, of phoniness, in different ways, like in a relationship or when I’m writing. The feeling of misalignment is deeply upsetting, and I’ll do anything I can to fix it.
What’s an example of it when you’re writing? Over the years, I’ve put away showy language and plot devices, stopped trying to get attention, and gotten a lot calmer and funnier. When I wrote Less, my friends said my writing finally matched my personality. I’m proud of my earlier books, but they’re heavy. There was a point where I snapped, and I thought, “I don’t want to tell it that way anymore.” It has to do with getting older—no more smoke and mirrors.
Less was a book I assumed no one would read, and very few publishers were interested in it. But I’d reached the point where I just wanted to make the thing that was in my head. I was like, “No one’s looking. It won’t be a hit, but I don’t care.” I was very proud of Less when I finished it, and even if it went nowhere, I promised myself I’d be pleased. That was great, the feeling you really want as a writer.
And then you won the Pulitzer. Had you ever felt like being a writer wasn’t going to work out? There have been two times in my life when I felt I was never going to make it as a writer. One was after my first novel, The Path of Minor Planets, came out and no one reviewed it. The second was after my fourth novel, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, came out and no one reviewed it.
What kept you going? My writing is what’s always gotten me through hard times. If the writing is causing the hard time, the only way to get through it is more writing. To stop the writing would not occur to me. Maybe also my vanity is so enormous that nothing can destroy it. That’s possible. But the pleasure I get from writing, even if just the struggle of it, makes me feel like it’s my actual emotional life. It’s not that I’m a person who’s constantly creating on cocktail napkins, but when I’m working on a book, it gives me a reason to live, like that selfish thing where many of us novelists are careful when crossing the street—we don’t want to be hit by a bus because we have to finish the book. The world needs your book, so you have to stay alive.
A central question in the bardo teachings is how we can find meaning in the face of obstacles. How has writing in a humorous way helped you do this? I turned to humor because my normal, serious way of writing was getting me to clichés. I found that humor was very connected to the deep things in life—if you meet real comedians, you’ll see this. Steve Martin, for example, he’ll want to talk with you about exactly what you and I are talking about rather than tell you a funny story or a joke.
Humor makes me face hard things and not think about them the way I did before. I see them from a much greater distance and realize that with anything awful, there’s got to be a funny part. When I was writing the Less books, I tried to think of the worst, most humiliating things that had happened in my life and put them in the books in a funny way.
Along with the humor in the Less books, there’s a preoccupation with love. How do you feel about love? In Less, there’s a couple who, after twenty years, says, “I think that was good, don’t you? Wasn’t that wonderful? Let’s part.” And I surprised myself because that’s what my husband and I did after I wrote that book. Not because of the book, but I was clearly thinking, “What’s the right way to do love?” It sounds easy as I talk about it now, but it was very difficult.
I think about love a lot. It’s something I care about and want. And I’ve gotten old enough to only want the kind that will give me freedom and support, not the other kind that seems so sexy when you’re young, that’s about possessiveness and manipulation and control.
The bardo teachings encourage us not to fall into denial. We often stay in relationships that aren’t working, telling ourselves things like we’ve been together for a long time, nothing’s perfect, tomorrow will be different. But you recognized your marriage was over and you left. Yeah, I’m proud of that, though my husband and I were on the same page. I think the harder thing is to leave when you realize you’re not a good fit with the other person but you’re so in love with them. There’s still passion and chemicals and doubt: “Could I fix it? Could I make it work? Could I change him?”
In bardo, we make choices and, in that way, decide our path. Do you have the sense that you’re living out your fate, or do you feel like you’re in the driver’s seat? I make choices rather than just let change happen and then have to fight against it. I’m not a brave person, it’s just that I’m aware of the feeling that change is happening and I have to go with it. I’m so afraid of being caught in a life I don’t want, or wasting time and energy in a situation that’s pointless.
I’m certainly not strategic, but I try to plan my life based on an instinct about what should come next, along with an awareness—almost an expectation—that there will be some outside force that will change whatever does come next. Like, I decide to move to a small town in Italy and that puts me in the right place for the next opportunity, whatever that may be. I don’t know where that is between fate and being in the driver’s seat, but it’s how I think. It’s not how I was raised, which was to plan everything out to the end—and which is how I used to write my books. I’ve found it’s better in writing my books to have an idea of what the ending is, and then just follow my instinct about how to get there.
“I think being present and attentive is the artist’s whole job.”
The Less books have happy endings. Was that a conscious decision? Definitely. For Less, I wanted a gay literary novel with a happy ending. It’s hard to find that kind of book, and I thought we deserved one. I thought, “There’s a lot of sad gay books out there, and they’re awfully good. But since I’m making it up, why not make up something that’s going to give people a sense of joy at the end?” I like books that end happily, like what you see in Jane Austen. And I wanted a happy ending for Less Is Lost. In fact, in the German translation, the title is Happy End! So many readers wrote to me on Instagram during the pandemic, and have approached me at events, to tell me how grateful they were to have a happy ending for the Less books. And no one’s given me crap about it yet, so I will continue.
The Dalai Lama says the purpose of life is to be happy. Do you agree? That sounds exactly right to me. It’s wise and deceptively simple.
Are you happy? Over the course of my life is hard to say, but right now? For sure. That’ll change very soon—like later today. I try to be aware of when I feel happy and say, “Well, this is wonderful. I’m having a lovely conversation with you. I’m working on a new book. I’m in this beautiful artist’s room with a view in Tuscany. I love my boyfriend, who’s downstairs. I had a great lunch.” I’m like, “Enjoy this. Sit for a moment with it.”
I’m not good at being present—I try my best, but I wish I were better at it. I meditate. At the beginning of the pandemic, I started doing transcendental meditation with my friend Daniel Handler, the Lemony Snicket writer. It’s been wonderful. He’s in California, and we meet every day on Zoom and meditate for twenty minutes.
Again and again, The Tibetan Book of the Dead says, “Do not be distracted.” The idea is that we can move forward only by being present and paying attention. I think being present and attentive is the artist’s whole job, and I hope meditating helps me do that. Proust believed that the role of the artist is to capture what other people retreat from because it’s too painful for them to be present with it. The artist collects it for them and reproduces it, and then they recognize it in a far less painful way. I just love that.
When the pandemic lockdowns started, a writer friend said to me, “I’m working on my novel, but it seems pointless with these protests over the George Floyd murder. I don’t know if it’s worth it to be a writer.” And I said, “Pay attention. It’s your job. You can pay attention to the details of pandemic life, or of the protest, or of absolutely anything. But do not freak out. That’s what everyone else is doing, and we need to be there, maybe not to create something that will help people right now but that will be of benefit to them later.” It’s only paying attention to the actual details of life, not a hot take on something but a considered take on something, that’s going to help someone in the future. I’m not a calm person, but it’s calming to think, “I can be here and record carefully. That will be my role in this.”
In Less, you wrote, “At ten, we climb the tree higher even than our mothers’ fears. At twenty, we scale the dormitory to surprise a lover asleep in bed. At thirty, we jump into the mermaid-green ocean. At forty, we look on and smile.” What about for you now, at 52? What’s the bold thing to do? You won’t find me climbing anything or jumping off anything. I’ve done all that and don’t have to prove myself anymore. A lot of things that people try to get me to do, I might be like, “I’ve done that plenty, thank you. I’m going to go to sleep tonight.” Or I might go out dancing.
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