Off the Grid
We caught up with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Andrew (Andy) Sean Greer ’88 one day, two martinis, and a bottle of wine later than planned. An hour before our scheduled interview on November 7, the Associated Press called the presidential election. Andy’s twin brother Mike Greer ’88 pinged the news across the Atlantic Ocean to Liguria, Italy, where Andy, his boyfriend, and a large rescue dog were safely locked down—due to COVID-19—in a rented hillside cottage. Needless to say, the interview was rescheduled for the next day, following a large plate of thick, hand-cut, hangover-recovery bigoli pasta splashed with roasted red pepper sauce and ricotta cheese.
“I’m feeling relief that that particular nightmare is over,” Andy said via Zoom from the cottage kitchen, reflecting on the 24-hour sea change. Despite his “Off the grid” auto-response emails, he managed to connect virtually to discuss his books, his recollections of GDS, and what’s next in his writing life. Given the significance of the moment, he began with the presidential election.
“The Trump administration was actively litigating to remove civil rights from queer people, trans people, soldiers with HIV...This administration was quietly trying to undo everything [we’d fought for], policy-wise. All that stops. We no longer have a Justice Department that will be trying to undo justice actively in federal court...This isn’t about marriage or ‘some lesbians who couldn’t buy flowers.’ This is about human rights and sexual freedom for all people. It’s just a huge relief.”
The topic of sexual freedom and marriage equality is the subject of Andy’s recent chapter for Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases edited by Michael Chabon and published in January 2020. In the chapter, he reflects on the 2013 Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor, which declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and his subsequent rage to see the notion of freedom behind the ruling subverted in the intervening years. He wrote, “I’m enraged at myself right now, for still believing, despite all evidence, that the fairy dust magic of marriage somehow dispels the smaller pernicious evils of our country, when in fact those evils are the only ones that count.”
Within those pages and again now, Andy makes the case to stay in the fight for justice—however hampered and however long-delayed. “History is going to tell this story so differently. They may say, ‘It was only four years!’ But we didn’t know that! We were so close to going over the edge and losing our democracy. So I want everyone to remember the details of what it felt like just two days ago [compared to] today.”
In his chapter he wrote, “I almost wished my middle-aged self could transport one message back to the 19-year-old Andy Greer marching across from the White House and tell him, ‘It’s worth it! We won!’”
Returning to Lead
A few short years before 19-year-old Andy started marching, he was a closeted gay high school student during the AIDS crisis. Teachers were not out at GDS, and the school administration had not yet shown the kind of leadership in LGBTQ+ inclusion that it has since or that one might have expected it to follow given its founding mission. Andy’s recollections paint a mixed experience. To this day, he reports having been “really happy” in High School. Yet, upon graduating from Brown University in 1992, he asked to come back to speak to the High School administration, faculty, and students about some of the more painful experiences he endured being gay at GDS.
Former French teacher Charles Psychos explained: “Andy told the administration that though we had perceived him as a happy and successful student, he had, in fact, felt alone and unsupported as a gay student. His courageous gesture inspired a number of gay faculty to undertake an effort to educate our colleagues about the needs of their sexual minority colleagues and of sexual minority students. He is singularly responsible for jump-starting what is now GDS's exemplary affirmation of the value of the LBGTQ+ members of our community, including parents. We owe it all to Andy!”
Andy recalls Charles and former Spanish teacher Jan Braumuller supporting him through that visit. Afterward, Laura Rosberg brought him to her English class because she wanted her students to continue the conversation. “I was so moved by that,” he said.
During the visit in 1992 and since, Andy learned that “a quiet group of teachers [had known] who the queer students were, and they were worried about me.” Behind the scenes, these teachers were working to keep students safe emotionally during the AIDS crisis that ultimately claimed the lives of at least two alumni not long after High School. Despite how grim things seemed, because of caring teacher allies or because, as Andy said, the “school culture was oriented around students excelling” rather than social status or identity, he recalls having a good time and feeling successful during those years.
“GDS set me up to be, I think, a warm, empathetic person and set me up to be accepting of myself when I did come out, even though none of that was talked about. It was a welcoming environment, and I was encouraged at every level. I was well prepared for the world.”
And now we come to it—Andy always wanted to be a writer. During his senior year, he secretly wrote and edited a 240-page novel, two pages a night, after seeing a contest poster from publisher Avon Flare that someone put up on a school wall. Ultimately, the joke is on the publisher, of course, for not selecting Andy’s book to win that competition. That year, for his American literature final, he wrote “a pastiche of Faulknerian purple prose,” as he recalls it, that so mimicked the style of the author that his teacher Alison (Fastov) Taylor held onto the blue exam booklet and has kept in touch to this day. She knew from Andy’s nimble use of language that he was going to be a writer of renown.
“We were writing in every [course] at GDS so that when I arrived at Brown, it felt so easy, and I knew how to write papers. I knew how to take my time and write—a week ahead of time—and revise.”
Part of what prepared him well, perhaps, was that at GDS, he involved himself in just about every aspect of storytelling. He performed in every play and musical: The King and I, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, South Pacific, Bringing It All Home (One Acts), and Noises Off. He tried and “was terrible at” fast-paced debate, sang in a cappella and choir “with all the same people from theater,” and worked on yearbook, “which I feel like is a notoriously nerdy thing to do in high school, but I felt like I had control [of people’s stories].”
“Nerdy” or not, his old classmate and current San Francisco downstairs neighbor Eve Cohen ’88, who has now known him for almost 40 years, pointed out that Andy is actually “the guy you would want at a party.” They “podded” together this spring during the early months of the pandemic, before Andy decamped to Liguria, meeting up every Friday for socially distant cocktails delivered in mason jars from The Alembic, their favorite Upper Haight bar-and-bookstore. “He was always a storyteller,” she said. “He always had the perfect line to sum up any interaction, story, or event. I always knew he was quite brilliant.”
“In college, he wrote a musical, and I traveled to Brown to see it,” Eve recalled. “It was unbelievably creative and wonderful! However, it wasn't until I read The Confessions of Max Tivoli that I really understood his talent. What is amazing for me, knowing Andy so well, is I can hear his voice [in my head] when I read his books, like my own personal audiobook.”
Looking Back to Move Forward
Next door to The Alembic is The Bindery, the book shop and event space that has hosted Andy for readings over the years. Among others, he has read from the aforementioned bestseller The Confessions of Max Tivoli (2003), The Story of a Marriage (2008), The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (2013), and Less (2017), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018—the same year Andy was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship.
Less, the peripatetic novel that good-naturedly skewered the literary world then won one of its most coveted prizes, was also named one of the best books of the year by more than a half dozen national and international news organizations. At each stumbling turn for his protagonist—the failed, almost-was novelist Arthur Less—Andy chose the most comedic, humane, and joyful path forward. “I wanted to write a book about joy because I wanted to read one,” he said.
Andy wrote Less before the 2016 presidential election but published in a different political climate—a climate, it turns out, that was even more in need of a novel like Less. In the aftermath of that 2016 election, he rented an RV and drove to small towns in the Southwest and the Deep South to listen and engage empathetically at diners and bars, where he could seek out the stories of those he’d been told he didn’t understand as a liberal coast-dweller. “People are so ready to tell you their life stories,” Andy remarked. “You just need to give permission.” They gave their stories generously.
Now, with the 2020 presidential election behind him, Andy feels ready to get back to his next novel, thrilled to be able to wake up in the morning and not have the raging compulsion to check the news. The new book will integrate those stories gathered in small Southern towns and touch on topics of politics and race. It’s certain to contain the pain of Americans hemmed in by unfortunate circumstances, but, if Less and his essay in Fight of the Century are any indications, it’s also certain to deliver a complementary set of emotions. Where the essay, seethes—“If I had a pen in my hand, it would be shaking with rage”—it also ends with hope. “...We’d survived it all, we're still totally queer, making queer art in the world...I did not feel afraid because I knew the people around me would protect me,” Andy writes. “And oh—because, love.”
Quo, the rescue dog, trotted into the kitchen to check on dinner and catch another scratch behind the ears, a novel delight after nine years of neglect in a kennel cage. Andy seemed to delight, too, at the request for affection from an animal who until recently didn’t know love from humans. Life had turned a corner and was back on the grid for the pair of them.
Andy lifted his hand from the dog’s scruff to pull nostalgically at his own lazy curls. “I’m trying to grow my same hairdo from 1988 as my COVID-19 hairdo,” he said. “You can tell people that my yearbook photo is what I’m going for—that curly 1980s look.” Sometimes we all need to look backward to move forward.
Andy and his twin brother Mike
Andy and his twin brother Mike, pictured celebrating their birthday in Japan last year, arrived at GDS in 1984 from a school that prohibited the use of computers, which they saw as devices for cheating. GDS, by contrast, insisted students learn to program and encouraged students to explore what computers could do, Andy recalled. Mike is now the director of engineering at Discord, a digital service that values “original, reliable, playful, and relatable” community-building communication and garners more than 100 million monthly active users globally. Not only is Mike highly adept technically, he is also the go-to person at the company to guide difficult political conversations around race and gender. Andy said, “You trace a lot of that back to GDS’s ethos.”
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New York Times bestselling novelist, songwriter, and professor
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer
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Founding Partner, The CC Group at Morgan Stanley
Conservation Scientist, The Nature Conservancy – Wyoming
Founder, Illumen Capital
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Novelist, journalist, and recipient of the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart
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