Say you wrote a book. You agonized for years over every word, each character. Say your book did quite well, received glowing reviews from big-shot critics, became a bestseller—and then, four years later, say you start getting phone calls from friends complaining about a film in the works starring two of Hollywood's biggest stars that has a story just like your book—a film that goes on to be nominated for 13 Oscars. And say, throughout it all, your book is hardly mentioned. How might you feel? Andrew Sean Greer, the author of "The Confessions of Max Tivoli," a turn-of-the-century tale about a man who ages in reverse, feels a bit like a lonely ex-boyfriend. His 2004 novel and a certain Brad Pitt movie are similar enough that some of his fans are positively hysterical. But not Greer. He explains to NEWSWEEK's Jesse Ellison. Excerpts:
The movie is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Was your book as well?
I hadn't heard of the Fitzgerald story until my book was published. I thought I'd invented the idea. Such hubris! The vanity of a solitary writer! Now whenever I do a reading, people say, "You know, there's a 'Star Trek' episode about people aging backwards." "Mork and Mindy" had a character age backwards!
Have you seen the movie?
I finally saw it in January because I couldn't take it anymore. I was so anxious about it. But it was a great relief. I didn't see any of my book on the screen. I called my editor and said, "Everything's fine."
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Really? Despite the similarities?
What's similar are the solutions to the problem of telling a story about a man aging backwards. Either he ages backwards in his mind or he doesn't. There are only two ways to go. There aren't 1,000. So to me ["Button" screenwriter] Eric Roth found the same solution I did and went a totally different way, which was fascinating to watch.
How often are you asked about the film?
All the time. It's like, five years after you've moved out of someplace, there's a kid who looks like you and you have to say, "I'm not the father. I know he looks like me, but I'm gay."
It seems peculiar that your book is never mentioned in reviews of the film. The book got a lot of attention when it came out.
I think no one mentions it because film people aren't book people.
You're very gracious about all of this. I would think it's a little bittersweet.
It is bittersweet. The hard part is on airplanes. Here's the conversation. You say, "I'm a writer." "What kind of writer?" "I'm a novelist." "Would I know any of your books?" And I say, "Well, you might know one." I used to be able to explain Max Tivoli to them and they'd say, "Oh, I've heard of that" or "that sounds interesting." Now they say, "Oh, is it the 'Benjamin Button' movie?" Then I have to somehow explain something that's weird to explain. And then people are enraged! Either at me for stealing Fitzgerald or at the "Benjamin Button" people. And then I have to explain, "Well, the artistic process is shady and subtle …"
You could make something up to avoid that conversation.
I guess I could. I had another book out in May, and when people ask, I say, "It's about a couple in the 1950s and their marriage." And they go, "Hmm, is it like 'Far From Heaven'?" And I say, "I can't have this conversation."
What do you think it'll be like to watch the Oscars next week?
Sort of like watching your ex get awards. It had nothing to do with you, but you can't stop watching. At first you're like, Why wasn't I invited? Well, you're not dating them—why would you be invited? I feel a connection to it that they don't feel to me, I'm sure. I understand that it's weird. I try to not think about it, but, well, here you are, NEWSWEEK calling.