Arts & Culture
10:00 am
Wed August 21, 2013

Getting a Chance to Answer Those 'What Ifs'

Most of us have "what-ifs" fogging up our lives.

Though his new novel involves time-traveler, author Andrew Sean Greer says he doesn't write science fiction, but rather historical fiction.
Though his new novel involves time-traveler, author Andrew Sean Greer says he doesn't write science fiction, but rather historical fiction.
Credit Harper Collins

What if I had taken that journey? What if I hadn't broken up with that person? Sometimes the answer is that things would be far worse. But sometimes they'd be far better.

And the kicker is, of course, we have no way of knowing which way it would have gone.

Greta Wells, the title character in the new novel The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, is given the chance to redo, to fix her life. Thanks to a faulty, or maybe enhanced, course of electric shock treatment, Greta finds herself moving in and out of other timelines.

How she comes to understand herself and those closest to her through this time shifting is Andrew Sean Greer's way of exploring what one person might do if given the chance for a do-over.

Greer says he spent five years to discover what would happen to Greta Wells in each situation.

“It made me think that there really isn’t a great time for anyone in the past…or even now,” Greer says.

In the book, Greta lives in the same Greenwich Village apartment throughout the span of 67 years of time travel. Other constants throughout time are her twin brother Felix, Felix’s partner Allen, and their Aunt Ruth.

The book begins in 1985, but the characters travel to 1918 and 1941 - moments in history that Greer felt were similar in regards to women’s rights and place in society.

Though women couldn't vote in 1918, Greer found while researching for this book that it was a fun, free time in Greenwich Village.

“Men were gone - they were at war,” Greer says. “So there was a lot of women just there running things. And in Greenwich Village it was for some reason one of those moments, like the 1960s, more than the 1920s, it was a moment of just total free love.”

Greer says this is not a time travel book, so if the reader expecting such a tale will be confused and disappointed. Rather, this story is Greer’s third historical fiction novel, a genre he says he feels comfortable with.

“I’m a fiction writer because I actually don’t want to write about myself directly,” Greer says, “and I think I set things in the past because I don’t want to write about the present day directly because I don’t process it very well.”

Greer also authored The Story of a Marriage and The Confessions of Max Tivoli, among other books.  He was recently in Milwaukee for a book tour.