What belongs to Garth Greenwell: An Interlochen success story

Update April 9, 2020 — Greenwell's sophomore novel, Cleanness, was released on Jan. 14, 2020. On April 8, 2020, Greenwell was awarded a 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship.

Garth Greenwell (IAA 94-96) is a Harvard graduate, an acclaimed author and a confident man whose schedule is so busy that squeezing in time for an interview takes some juggling.

But back in 1995, his life looked very different, and he credits Interlochen Arts Academy for the changes.

“Interlochen really saved my life,” said Greenwell, now 38.

Back then, he was a gay teenager living in Kentucky. He faced the disapproval of some of his family after he came out. Discouraged, and flailing in all aspects of his life, Greenwell flunked his freshman English class in his Kentucky high school, and if he got a C or a D in any course, he considered that to be a success. He was disinterested in school, he didn’t understand why any of it was important, and he was on track for nothing good, he said.

Then, the music teacher at his high school told him about a school in Michigan called Interlochen Arts Academy. The teacher helped him apply and get in, even helping record Greenwell’s audition tape.

“I went from this place where I had a lot of hopelessness, to a school where for the first time in my life, there were adults who modeled what it meant to live a passionate life of the mind,” Greenwell said. “I was surrounded by unbelievable artists. It was a community of the most concentrated brilliance that I have ever been in in my life, far more so than somewhere like Harvard.”

He never expected the changes to be so drastic, to transform his entire being.

At Interlochen he studied vocal performance, but Greenwell said he was equally shaped by his academic teachers, from history to English.

He took a contemporary classics course with Jean Gaede—who still teaches at Interlochen today—on Russian literature, where he read Crime and Punishment. He said that was where he learned to use books to think—to think about his life via a book.

Gaede recalled Greenwell as being an incredibly conscientious student.

“While his intellectual ability is certainly memorable, it is Garth’s utter decency and humanity that has stayed with me over the years,” Gaede said. “Adolescence is so often fraught with myriad personal challenges—and Garth certainly had his share—yet he was never so self-absorbed that he ignored the fact that others may also be struggling.”

Greenwell started getting straight A’s at Interlochen. He said his teachers at Interlochen turned on a switch inside of him, and he began to love his academic classes and began to be excited by books. He had always disregarded his history classes, but his American history teacher showed him why it mattered, why he should care.

Essentially, Interlochen brought a broken Greenwell back to life.

“Even though I went on to the Eastman School of Music, it was those years (at Interlochen) that laid the groundwork for me to be a writer, to be a scholar,” Greenwell said.

After Interlochen, Greenwell went to Eastman for voice, but he realized during his junior year that he didn’t want the life of a performer. He said he knew that he had come to music very late—at the age of 14—and that there were aspects of music that he could never hear. He decided he could engage in poetry, with words, in ways he could never fully engage with in music.

Greenwell transferred to SUNY Purchase for the remainder of his undergraduate studies, and then went to Harvard to study poetry as a scholar.

But again, he had a change of heart.

“I realized that I was preparing myself for a life I didn’t want—a tenured professor and someone who writes about literature in a very particular way,” Greenwell said.

He moved to Ann Arbor to teach high school and stayed for three years before moving to Bulgaria to teach Bulgarian high school students, giving him the chance to live abroad.

It was there that Greenwell penned his debut novel, What Belongs to You, a tale published in January 2016 that takes place in Bulgaria. The book, recently longlisted for the 2016 National Book Awards, has been described as “the first great novel of 2016” by Publishers Weekly, “a must-read” by Out magazine, and “incandescent” by the New York Times, in addition to receiving many other tremendous reviews.

“I’m totally bewildered,” Greenwell said of the accolades. “I never expected this kind of reception.”

And with just a little more than two decades separating him from the scared, floundering teen in Kentucky to the published book author in the midst of his book tour—what now?

When he’s not traveling the country on behalf of What Belongs to You, Greenwell is living in Iowa City with his boyfriend, Luis Muñoz, who is the poetry professor in the Spanish-language creative writing MFA program at the University of Iowa, where Greenwell is the Richard E. Guthrie Memorial Fellow.

And now that Greenwell’s first novel has been successfully launched, he has to decide what to do with his time, with his career.

“I want to try to figure out how to sustain a life that has writing at the center,” Greenwell said, adding that he doesn’t exactly know what’s next, and that’s OK, too.

“One thing I like about writing is that it’s kind of an anti-career—anything you do feeds writing, and any experience you have feeds writing. I’m trying to be open to the possibilities.”

—Danielle Braff