Andrew Sean Greer, LESS IS LOST

Andrew Sean Greer, LESS IS LOST

Guest host Alisha Fernandez Miranda interviews best-selling author Andrew Sean Greer about Less Is Lost, an utterly delightful follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Less. Andrew talks about the incredible American road trip he took for book research and his much more confined writing conditions (he was stuck in his Milan apartment during the Italian COVID lockdown!). He also talks about the impact of the Pulitzer Prize on his career, the books on his TBR list, and the odd array of jobs he explored in a past life (from chauffeur to videogame tester to extra on Saturday Night Live!?).


Alisha Miranda: I’m really excited to be back here on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and to welcome Andrew Sean Greer, who is the author of Less is Lost. Andrew, welcome to the podcast.

Andrew Sean Greer: Thanks so much for having me.

Alisha: You’re smiling really nicely at me, but I’m kind of angry at you because I didn’t sleep last night. I was flying back from New York. I started your book on the tarmac. I did not stop reading until my layover at six o’clock this morning in Dublin. Thank you/I’m angry at you for writing such a phenomenal and hilarious book.

Andrew: You have no one to blame but yourself.

Alisha: That’s absolutely true.

Andrew: Planes are good for reading. I have to say that’s one of the best things about a plane.

Alisha: I loved reading a book about traveling while I was traveling, even though I was leaving America and not traveling around America in an RV. It was a delight. I’m a big fan of Less. Also, you really reward the reader who’s paying attention. I appreciate that, when I see something come back and I’m like, I remember that joke. He said that a few pages ago. That’s also the good thing about reading a book in one sitting.

Andrew: That is great to hear. If you read it over weeks, those things don’t really land.

Alisha: Even if you do, you’ll still love it. We know we got a lot of busy moms listening to this podcast who may not have very long flights. Why don’t you start by telling everybody what Less is Lost is about?

Andrew: Less is Lost, it’s a follow-up to Less, but it’s a standalone. Don’t be scared. There’s not much to know about the first book. It’s not like it has a lot of plot. It’s a story about a middle-aged, middle-career gay writer in America who’s living in San Francisco with his boyfriend, Freddy. It’s narrated by Freddy. There’s a financial crisis. Less has to go and try to get as much money as he can from the weirdo things that writers are offered. He ends up in a cross-country trip, west to east, in the United States. It’s Freddy who’s telling the story with love, affection, and ridicule of his boyfriend.

Alisha: The narrator’s voice is so strong. Also, the characterization of Less is so strong as well. I think you really strike that balance so brilliantly. I know you’ve answered this. I’ve gone through and did a deep dive rabbit hole of reading a lot of the press you’ve done around this book. I think it’s worth asking again. What made you decide you wanted to come back to this story after such a successful run with Less?

Andrew: You probably read that I didn’t at first. Books in the US, they come out a year after you turn them in. I was fiddling around with more stories about Less because it’s just really enjoyable for me. Then my agent told me, “Now that you won the Pulitzer Prize, you can’t write a sequel to a Pulitzer Prize novel. It’s unseemly,” so I didn’t. I worked on another book for a long time. I read it, and it was awful. That’s not atypical for me. I’m very hard on myself, but it was bad. I remembered something another prizewinner had told me, Michael Chabon. He said, “Now you can write anything you want.” I thought, okay, then I’m going to write a sequel to Less because that’s my comfort zone. It’s such a joy to write that way.

Alisha: Timeline-wise, when were you writing this? Was this before March 2020? Was it during the pandemic? What was your timeline when you were actually putting this together?

Andrew: I did the research for the book I was going to write — I didn’t know what it was — much earlier, right after the 2016 elections, so 2017, before Less even came out in the US. I rented a camper van and went to the Southwest and the Deep South for six weeks. I started writing in 2019, the bad book. Then I started Less just before the pandemic. This is the book that I wrote in the pandemic. I had all the material. I just was locked in a room in Milan, in an apartment.

Alisha: But actually locked in a room because I know Italy had a very restrictive lockdown.

Andrew: Oh, yeah. There was no leaving. It was great. They would make rules that would be like, for Christmas, you have to choose, for ten days, where you’re going to be. You can’t go to the next town. The next town is across the street. Those towns are just right up next to each other. Of course, my boyfriend and I chose to spend those ten days with his parents.

Alisha: Of course, you did.

Andrew: Ten days. They don’t speak English. It was great.

Alisha: How’s your Italian?

Andrew: It’s gotten better since then.

Alisha: It is as good as your German? I have to say, the German parts in the book — the stewardess came over to ask if I was okay because I was actually laughing out loud.

Andrew: Sorry. I just think it’s funny to think — as English speakers, we take it for granted that other people would learn English as their second or third or fourth language. When you go to a hotel in France and they speak — France is a bad example. In Spain, they speak in English. Then they speak French to the next person. You’re like, this person would be an ambassador in the United States. Here, they work at a hotel. We should have a little humility about how ridiculous we would sound.

Alisha: We do. My French is definitely much worse than Less’s German in the book. I’m fascinated by the fact that you actually took this RV trip and that that was your research. Tell us a little bit about the trip. I know it’s fiction, but did you pull from any actual experiences you had on the road?

Andrew: My rule in Less — I had two rules. One was I could only write down details that I wrote down in my notebook for my travels. Everything in Less, those things did not happen to those people, but every rock and chair is real because I didn’t want to write a fantasy of India or Japan. I wanted to write what was actually there. The second one is that the joke is always on Arthur Less. When you travel, those people are normal. If you can’t figure out the subway system, it’s not because they’re stupid. It’s because you are. I can never figure out subway systems. I did the same one in this book. I thought, I’m not going to make fun of Arizona, Alabama, Mississippi. I’m going to write down all the details that I’ll need. I have my preconceptions about those parts of the country. I’m not allowed to write those preconceptions down. I have to write down what there is. There was a hound dog cemetery. There was a tombstone that said, “He was not the best, but he was the best I ever had.” I wrote that down. It made it into the book in a major way.

Alisha: I feel like there’s going to be a slew of people doing RV trips trying to follow the same route. I would do it. I would do it in a heartbeat.

Andrew: I did travel a lot more than Less does. I went all over the place. I just went to tiny, small towns everywhere. I went to Greer, New Mexico, just because it was named Greer. It turned out to be a ski resort. I was trapped in a blizzard in a bar and just talked to everyone there.

Alisha: How amazing. Were you on your own, or were you traveling with your partner?

Andrew: I was. My partner was with me at the first part because he hasn’t seen a lot of America. He’s Italian. I took him through the communes of the Southwest, which I combine into something. He was fascinated. I realized it’s better if I travel alone. I pay more attention to what’s around me. If I’m with someone else, I just talk with them. In the Deep South, I was definitely alone, which was helpful.

Alisha: It’s such a journey. I want to read this quote that I pulled out. I could’ve basically just read the whole book here as an audiobook, but I’m not going to do that. I pulled out this one. “He thinks each day will be better than the next. He is wrong. He awakens the next morning and thinks it again. He is wrong. He thinks we are free to become our true selves, that we are free to love as we choose, a mindset so United Statesian you could serve it with ketchup, but friends, you cannot live on ketchup.” I just loved that. In the piece that The New York Times did about you, you said you really wanted to write about America. Why?

Andrew: In that 2016 election, I think a lot of America, no matter what you felt about the outcome, was surprised and interested. Now we see even more and more, a divided America. Politically, I have firm ideas, but as a novelist, I don’t. I go in thinking, maybe I’m wrong. Clearly, I’m ignorant. I thought, I want to see America that I had never visited before. I want to try to put it in my head to write a book about America, which is such a pompous thing to say. Of course, in my mind, I was going to write this eight-hundred-page tome about travel. It ends up being a silly and poignant novel about a small part of it, but I put it in my head. At the beginning of the book, there’s a foreigner, a Czech writer, who asks Arthur, he says, “Why do Americans never ask themselves, what if America’s a bad idea?” We don’t ask ourselves that until very recently.

Alisha: I’ve been an ex-pat for a long time. I’ve been fifteen years out of the US, in the UK. I was at the women’s summit in France in 2016 right after Trump got elected in this room full of feminists from around Europe and the world and everybody kind of in shock. I remember there was a panel of American women talking about the election. A French woman stood up and asked this question, something like, “Doesn’t this now prove that everything you’ve ever been trying to do as America has just been a charade and you were all wrong all along?” It was amazing, actually, because the panel really had — they were like, “No, absolutely not. It just means we need to fight harder. We need to do more.” That’s such a uniquely American point of view. Being an ex-pat, have you seen a different side of that? How do you feel like your perception of America has changed? I know you spent a lot of time out of the country.

Andrew: I think it’s really useful. It gives you a perspective of — for instance, if I’m here in San Francisco, my super liberal friends get very upset and want to talk about what Marjorie Taylor Greene said yesterday. When I’m in Italy, no one knows who that is.

Alisha: Isn’t that nice?

Andrew: That is not in the newspaper. You realize that person is of no importance. She has a minor vote in the house of representatives. Why would you listen to that person? Italy has its own Marjorie Taylor Greene, loudmouth people, and plenty of them. I could read about them. Americans don’t know them. You start to see there’s a lot of news cycle we’re reading that isn’t important. Italy, they love America and American things because after the war, it transformed the country, the presence of Americans. They can’t let go of that, really. I think it’s heartbreaking in Italy for them to see the country heading the way it’s heading. They just had their own election that didn’t go the way — none of us were surprised, though. She’s been around a long time. It was no surprise. I think it broke their hearts to think that this solid thing they’ve seen in movies might be “mom and papa are fighting” feeling.

Alisha: You bring this up in so many different ways in the scenes in your book. This idea of America goes far beyond America. It’s not just how Americans think of themselves. There’s also this perception that other people have around the world of what America is. It’s important to people, not as important as, often, Americans would like to think it is, but it is important to a lot of people. It’s changing so rapidly. I loved how really sympathetic and humanized you were to your characters and how they were real, defined people. It was not a caricature of people in the South. It was really beautifully handled. You did a very good job with that.

Andrew: Thanks. That word in there, United Statesian, is from Italy. They’re always like, why do you call yourselves American? There’s so many other parts of America. They don’t say American. They say Stati.

Alisha: Same in Spanish, Estadounidense. Exactly.

Andrew: It’s United Statesian, which I think is really funny because it’s an awkward word in English.

Alisha: I might start using it.

Andrew: My partner does always make fun of me. He always says, “Are you going to have ketchup with that?” It’s so disgusting to them.

Alisha: Oh, my gosh. You wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. You’ve now come back. Do you feel more confident in your writing? Has your writing process changed? Has the process of trying to sell this book changed since everything that’s happened since Less came out? Tell me how things are different than they were then.

Andrew: Certainly, easier to sell the book. Less, I had trouble selling that. In the UK, twelve different publishers, including my old publisher, all turned it down. I was let loose. It wasn’t going to come out until the day after I won that prize. Then it was easier. I’m very aware that I should have a little humility about it. Nobody wanted that book.

Alisha: Don’t. You need to go, like Julia Roberts, back into all those publishers. You made a big mistake. Huge.

Andrew: As you guessed, the biggest transformation is in me in a sense of confidence of, okay, I will write this other book. Maybe no one’s asking for it, but I’m allowed to now. That’s a good way to write a book, is to think, this is what I want to write, not, this is what’s going to sell. Some interviews, they think it’s cynical of me to write a sequel to Less. I’m like, oh, no, everyone told me not to.

Alisha: I did it anyway.

Andrew: I did it anyway. It was uncynical.

Alisha: I remember when I finished Less, which was a while ago. I read it when it came out. I really did want more. Sometimes you’re really grateful to come back into the world, especially in a way where it’s good. It’s not a reboot that happens twenty years later. You’re like, oh, god, I wish they would’ve just left well-enough alone.

Andrew: Part of it was that I needed to be in a warmer embrace during pandemic. I hope the book is like that. For me, not to denigrate other art forms, I loved Game of Thrones, but I turned to the new one, I’m like, I cannot be here. This is too dark.

Alisha: Same. I know.

Andrew: Give me Lord of the Rings.

Alisha: I need something a little light. This was light, but it was also smart. I really enjoyed it, obviously. I’ve been gushing all over this entire podcast. They’re going to have to cut some of this out so I don’t seem too fan girly.

Andrew: Don’t cut it.

Alisha: Keep it all. A lot of the fantastic jokes in the book that do come at the expense of Less are also at the expense of the publishing community, the writing community, the literary community as a whole. Do you find it harder or maybe easier to satirize the community now that you are Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Andrew Sean Greer?

Andrew: It must be easier. If anyone gets mad at me, I’m not worried. Oh, no, now I won’t be invited to that cocktail party where I might — I don’t want to go to a cocktail party anymore. I don’t need that.

Alisha: That’s so awesome. What are you reading right now?

Andrew: I just bought a huge stack of books. A friend gave me a whole bunch. I’m a big fan of Muriel Spark. I just think there’s a Muriel Spark novel for everyone. I’m finishing one that’s called The Only Problem, which is nuts, as they all are. Next up, I’ve got Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, Booth. I always love her books. She’s also like Muriel Spark. Every one’s different, but they’re all so smart and lovely. I’ve got to read the new Emily St. John Mandel. I’ve got to read a Sheila Heti book.

Alisha: Your list is as long as mine.

Andrew: I’m a slow reader. That’s the terrible thing. I’m really slow.

Alisha: That means you’re enjoying every word, which I think writers probably appreciate.

Andrew: I hope so.

Alisha: What’s next for you in terms of your writing or other projects?

Andrew: It is about time for me to get back to this novel that I started this summer.

Alisha: The one you put away? No?

Andrew: No, not that one.

Alisha: That one’s gone. That one’s in the drawer forever.

Andrew: That one’s gone forever. I cannibalized it for Less is Lost. This next one is not a book with Arthur Less. I based it on the material that I have. I’m sort of a researcher, even though it doesn’t seem like it. My material is Italy, so I have a book there, but in same sort of warm-hearted comic mode but with different characters.

Alisha: Excellent. Sign me up for a preorder. I’ll be right there. I have a podcast with Zibby’s network. It’s called “Quit Your Day Job.” I have a particular fascination in jobs and career changers. I read this about you, that you have been a chauffeur, a restaurant receptionist, an extra on Saturday Night Live. You worked for Nintendo. You were a paralegal. You worked at a toy company. What was the best and the worst of all of those jobs that you have done?

Andrew: I would say working for Nintendo was great. My job was to play the games until I won them. I was paid to do that and then write an article about tricks on how to beat the game. That just seems like a dream job.

Alisha: We should’ve had a warning. Moms, if your kids are in the car, turn this off because if they hear that that’s a job, you’re never getting them back.

Andrew: Naming toys for a toy company was pretty hilarious too, that they would pay me to do that. They paid me hours. They told me, “You’re charging us too little. You need to double the hours.” I’m like, but it’s easy. Then I realized, oh, it’s easy for me.

Alisha: Do you remember anything you named?

Andrew: They would never take my real names. I remember that there was a pool floating radio. This is 2000, so that seemed really cool. I called it The Sound Turtle. I was like, that’s charming.

Alisha: I’d buy that.

Andrew: I gave it to the marketing people. They’d pitch it in a meeting. I’d give them three. They always would choose something like Floating Pool Radio every time. I don’t care.

Alisha: You did your thing. I don’t know if you saw Tick, Tick… Boom! There was a great part of Tick, Tick… Boom! where they’re trying to come up with — did you see Tick, Tick… Boom!?

Andrew: I did. It was great.

Alisha: You know that scene when they’re in the office and he’s trying to brainstorm ideas about what to name this product that they — that was so, so funny. I love that that’s a real job that people get paid to do.

Andrew: Yes.

Alisha: What was the worst of all of those job experiences?

Andrew: I think being a restaurant reservationist was really awful. I was in New York City. It was a really chic restaurant at the time. I had to, somehow at the age of twenty-one, know the names of every downtown person who should be able to get in and put them at tables at different times. I was bad at it. One day, I came in. The chef came upstairs with a cleaver wanting to kill me because I put everyone at seventy thirty. What did I know?

Alisha: Everything’s copy, right? That probably makes it into a good story at some point. We always like to finish up here with what your advice would be to aspiring writers who are listening to this.

Andrew: Part of it’s the day job thing. Don’t get a day job that is all writing all day because you’ll be worn out. Someone gave me that advice when I was really young. As you can see, I took it. I think it was really useful because then that one hour that you can grab for yourself every evening goes into the writing instead of being like, I can’t look at the screen for another minute, or pad of paper. In fact, pad of paper might be a good way to write. If you’re tired of screens, it might feel like a different magic object.

Alisha: You use a different part of your brain, I think, writing by hand.

Andrew: Plenty of people write on yellow legal pad.

Alisha: This has been such an amazing conversation. Where can listeners find you online for more information about what you’re up to and your whereabouts and all of those exciting things?

Andrew: I’ve got an old-fashioned website,, which I bought in 1998 and I still run myself.

Alisha: That’s fabulous. I go on a domain-buying spree a lot of the time. I’ve never bought that one. You had it already, so I couldn’t.

Andrew: Instagram is the other way to write to me. That’s what I’ll answer.

Alisha: What’s your handle?

Andrew: @ASGreer.

Alisha: Amazing. Fabulous. Thank you so much, Andrew, for being on the podcast and for writing such a beautiful book that was worth staying up all night to read. I am grateful for that.

Andrew: Thank you for doing that and for having me on.

Andrew Sean Greer, LESS IS LOST

LESS IS LOST by Andrew Sean Greer

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