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Writer Andrew Sean Greer Watches His Short Story "The Islanders" Come to Life on Stage

Photo by John Lee

As a man with an identical twin, author Andrew Sean Greer knows all about mistaken identity. Since the brothers moved just a block away from each other in Lower Haight, there have been quite a few awkward moments with confused neighbors.


Every day, the award-winning author of four books—including Story of a Marriage, set in 1950s SF—walks to the Mission, where he writes in a windowless office. Inside, there’s no Internet access or even cell reception. It’s just him and his MacBook Air, working on his next book, this one about a woman and the paths she might have taken. Greer says the isolation is necessary to keep him focused—the web and his inherent curiosity are a little too seductive. “I could be writing a scene set in the 1800s and describing a gopher, and I will wonder: What did a gopher look like back then?” he says. “Maybe I should check.”


Greer first found literary success with his 2004 novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, a love story about a boy who ages in reverse. Then in 2008, Brad Pitt starred in a movie with a strikingly similar plotline: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (Paramount, which maintains the film is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, had offered to buy the rights to Greer’s book prior to the film’s release, but the author declined.) From there on out, readers told Greer how they couldn’t help but picture Pitt’s tortured, love-struck face in every chapter. Greer was heartbroken. “A book is a much more interactive experience than a film,” he says. “It relies on the reader to create the other half of it themselves.”


The movie could have scared Greer off from any future adaptations of his work. But for three days starting March 9, Greer’s short story “The Islanders” goes from page to stage (word-for-word with Greer’s blessing) at Z Space, before the play travels to France for a three-week run ending in Paris. The dark, somber tale, originally published in The New Yorker, follows two middle-aged women, one from New York and the other from California, who take a road trip through Ireland’s countryside. At its core, the story is about friends saving each other.


Understandably, Greer is keen to see how his work translates in front of a live audience. “I watched a rehearsal the other day and found myself laughing—it was funny. I don’t think of myself as a funny writer, so it was nice to see my words in that new way,” says Greer, who will be part of a post-show conversation with Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) on the final day of the SF premiere. “And the actress playing Maddy, the main character, looks exactly like I had pictured her in my head.”

Andrew Sean Greer’s The Islanders premiers at Z Space, March 9–11.