An Interview with Lauren Groff

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01/29/2009 10:00 AM |

By Nate Brown. (Author photo by Lucy Schaeffer.)

In January of 2008, Lauren Groff’s debut novel The Monsters of Templeton was published to wide critical acclaim. Now, a year later, Groff’s has just published her first volume of stories, Delicate Edible Birds. The L recently emailed her to ask a few questions about the new book, her writing life and about what she’s currently reading.

The L: It would be difficult to begin an interview with you without asking you first about your bestselling debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton. About this time last year it was published to broad critical acclaim, and it went on to become a bestseller. Can you talk a bit about what the past year has been like? How did it feel to achieve such recognition at such a young age?

Lauren Groff: Thank you for calling me young—by now, after a year full of two book launches, the resultant loop-de-loop of foreign sales and criticism (even the good ones kill you a little bit), spurts of travel, and the birth of my son, I actually feel pretty ancient. A stony old trilobite.

I guess, from the outside, it does look as if publication, etc. happened quickly, but the truth is, I worked for years and years in doubt and obscurity, trying desperately to get anything at all published, writing two previous novels that I tossed in despair, writing three full drafts of Monsters that I tossed in equal despair before I started on the current incarnation, being stuck with the crappiest of crap jobs just to pay rent, and feeling defensive about calling myself a writer without anything to show for it.

Then I had a breakthrough about four years ago, and was able to sell a story to The Atlantic. I’m delighted that Monsters did so well, but publication is an ambivalent gift. Before I had it, it was the be-all-end-all, the sustaining dream that allowed me to lose myself for hours in character and scene. What I’ve learned, though, is that publication is sheer business, and I have the most counter-business brain of all times (I thought I was signing up for a life of books and solitude—ha!), and it takes up a huge amount of emotional currency that is better spent on writing itself. I’ve lost a lot of the pure joy of writing these last few years—now there’s a new anxiety to writing that wasn’t there before. That said, publishing is a gift, and I am humbled by it. I just can’t wait to get back to the desk.

The L: The first story in Delicate Edible Birds brings the reader back to Templeton, but the rich history and the nearly mythic things we learn about Templeton in your novel are no longer center stage in “Lucky Chow Fun.” Instead, this is a story in which a mother and her two daughters learn of a terrible act of human cruelty that been taking place right under their noses, and the outing of this tragedy changes the way the characters, and the reader, view the otherwise picturesque hamlet. As in The Monsters of Templeton, the town is inundated by media covering the story. Is it fair to say that the revelation of secrets intrigues you and, if so, what is it about the way characters must navigate secrets that interests you as a fiction writer?

LG: That’s definitely fair to say. It’s also fair to say that I wrote “Lucky Chow Fun” while I was writing Monsters, and fixations often bleed between projects. Also, I don’t think the revelation of secrets is going to be the touchstone I’ll return to time and again (like Marguerite Duras’s love-affair-between-white-girl-and-older-Asian-man theme, for instance). I write short stories differently than I write novels; I approach stories sometimes as exciting ways to experiment with techniques or themes that occur to me while novel-writing, and I think that’s what happened with “Lucky Chow Fun.”

The L: I also noticed that the stories “Fugue,” “Majorette” and “Sir Fleeting” all use—to varying degrees and effect—flashback, either as exposition (as in “Majorette”) or as the bulk of the story (“Sir Fleeting”). In so many of the pieces from this collection, history—personal histories, political history, romantic histories—plays a major role. What is it about a person’s or a place’s past that intrigues you?

LG: Huh. I’m not sure I know. But telling any story at all is telling about the past, right? Ordering the threads to make sense of them? I’ve never read a successful story that is pure future projection—even in futuristic science-fiction, the point-of-telling is always slightly more in the future than the story that is taking place. I may be wrong, but even the modernist urge of in-the-moment storytelling (I’m thinking of Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway) is by necessity telling the story a half-instant after things happen, otherwise, it’d all be pure sensory impression with no translation into language. That doesn’t really answer your question. I guess I like characters with layers, and I like to see the layers sometimes, and revealing history is a way of doing that.

The L: The stories “L. DeBard and Aliette” and “Delicate Edible Birds” both take place between nearly 70 and 91 years ago. The former is set in Spanish Flu-era New York City, and the latter in France during the German army’s march into Paris during World War II. Both of these stories and many sections of your novel are replete with historical references, and in all cases, you’ve written characters whose diction is appropriate for the time period. I’m interested to know what kind of research went into the creation of these two stories, and if that research was merely a necessary means to an end (a way of bringing each piece an appropriate naturalism), or if you found it enjoyable or interesting as well.

LG: I’ve always been an omnivorous reader, open to anything anyone suggests to me, and get much of my inspiration from not only haute literary fiction, but also nonfiction, poetry, science fiction, biography, autobiography, graphic novels, newspapers, whatever. About three times a year, I’m completely consumed with something I’ve read, and a story comes from that. In the case of “L. DeBard and Aliette,” my fixations were: the life of this wonderful swimmer named Ethelda Bleibtrey, the medieval love letters of Abelard and Heloise, and the 1918 influenza epidemic, which I first learned of when I read Ellen Bryant Voight’s magnificent book of poetry, Kyrie. “Delicate Edible Birds” comes from a collection of letters of Martha Gellhorn, a fascinating figure who was an intrepid female war reporter (also a wife of Ernest Hemingway), and a rereading of Maupassant’s "Boule de Suif." In short, I wouldn’t write these stories if I weren’t consumed with what I had read, so, yes, research is not only enjoyable and fascinating, it’s the wick to the petard, I guess.

The L: In contrast to the stories in your collection that use historical information to such great effect, Delicate Edible Birds also includes a story called “The Wife of the Dictator,” which avoids explicit historical and geographic references, and instead uses fictional devices that might be more common to fairy tales. We’ve got an unnamed country, a starkly stratified culture, a nearly mythic dictator who seems bold and a bit frightening. Other contemporary short fiction writers like Kevin Brockmeier and Judy Budnitz have displayed a similar stylistic ambidexterity where they can write naturalistic stories while also being able to let their imaginations roam freely into the fabulistic. I’m curious to know whether you prefer to read or write one over the other, or whether you think questions of mode or genre are even particularly relevant when you set out to write a story.

LG: I think a story becomes what it wants to be, and it’s the job of the storyteller to best match the mode of storytelling to the story. Meaning: you have to marry the music to the matter. This is a changing philosophy to me, and I wonder about it all the time. For instance: would Nabokov have written so often about nymphets if he didn’t have his glorious, somewhat florid style; or did the style somehow guide his subject matter? Would Hemingway have written about war, bullfighting, drinking, fishing if he’d had, in lieu of his taut and (to me) overly-virile terseness, a more feminine style? Who the hell knows? It’s a shock and pleasure when someone renowned for a certain style does something new. I’d say Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and McCarthy’s The Road are examples of writers pushing their style beyond what they had done for years and coming up with explosive new content. That’s all just hypothesis, based on a control group of one—me. When a story fails for me, it’s because I haven’t yet found the way to tell it, and have to circle it and try a new tack, a new way of telling, until it ends up being more right than it was before.

The L: I agree that there’s something exciting about witnessing an author whose work you admire work in a stylistically new way. Now that your own work has been published widely, do you think that’ll be a challenge for you moving forward? Do you push yourself to experiment stylistically?

LG: I’m still pretty new at this game, honestly, and every time I come to a story I have to figure out how to tell it from its foundations on up. That said, I do consciously try to do new things in direct contradiction to the work I had just done. That means I’ll follow up a pretty straightforward realistic first-person story with something that pushes me in a different direction—I’ll write a first-person plural story or a fragmented story or a tragic zombie story (as in Haitian zombies, and I’ve been working on that story for about eight years, and have not yet brought it anywhere near completion). A writer usually hopes she has decades of constant pushing before she stagnates into one given style, no? I’m not the hugest fan of everything Philip Roth or John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates have written (I know it’s heretical—I know—and I love some of their stuff wildly), but I admire so much that they’re all venerable elders who get a lot of energy and excitement from trying new formats and ways of telling their stories. I can’t imagine a more joyful way of living a writing life.

The L:
The publishing business has had a rough few years, and while it’s not entirely fair to ask authors what they think about the industry and the book market, I’m also curious to know what you think about the recent shake-ups in the publishing world. E-readers are starting to gain wider acceptance, big houses are reconsidering the way they buy manuscripts and sell books, and people seem generally and genuinely concerned about the future of the book. What kinds of hopes and fears do you have about the future of reading and writing?

Ye gods. I’m already an anxious person, and the world is so perilous nowadays that the relative health of the publishing industry seems at times relatively minor. That doesn’t mean I don’t worry about it, or lose nights of sleep over it—I do. But I also lose nights of sleep over: whether we’ll be around as a species in 100 years, nuclear armament, pervasive drought, global warming, polar bears, the mere possibility of Sarah Palin, parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, 300,000 Iraqi dead, genocides, Omar from The Wire being shot in the head, the disappearing Amazon, genetically modified foods, how to escape (by bicycle!) if a really bad hurricane hits Florida, etc. At worst, I’m building up my library so I have plenty to read if publishing halts for good. But unless we do die as a species, it won’t. I just read Anna Beer’s book about Milton, and even during the interregnum, when people were convinced the Apocalypse was moments away, there were more pamphlets and books published than anyone could keep up with. We will, as a species, declaim until we’re extinct. And if it means we’ll declaim on E-readers, so be it. I’ll be reading my real books until I have to boil them for soup.

The L: I know you and your husband recently had an addition to the family (congratulations!), and I’m curious to know whether the experience of becoming a mother has changed your writing at all. Do you feel more comfortable or confident writing about motherhood and marriage now that you are married and a mother yourself? Or does experiential knowledge play a lesser role in how you create your fiction?

LG: Let me get back to you on that one when I’m not being interrupted mid-sentence every four minutes by an explosive diaper. One thing about parenthood is that it teaches you patience, and I think patience is one of the few absolutely necessary elements to creating publishable fiction. It’s a lesson I have to teach myself over and over again—I never seem to learn it properly. But I think everything goes into your fiction, and I’ll definitely be more empathetic to the parents in my writing from now on. Nothing is easy when it comes to babies, except for the magnificent baby himself.

The L: Last but not least, I’m always curious to know what people are reading. Any good books or authors you’d like to let us in on?

LG: Oh hell yes, always. I’ve just read Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and Faith Fox as companion pieces, and she’s a total marvel. Nicola Keegan is coming out with a magnificent first novel called Swimming, in the summer, and it’s unique and joyous. I read Peter Mattheissen’s Shadow Country, which I didn’t realize was as brilliant as it was until the final section. My friend Kevin A. González put out a collection of poems called Cultural Studies, which is astounding—funny and heartbreaking and so very beautiful—I think he’s going to be a very big writer someday. I’m reading Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, and Anne Enright’s Taking Pictures (and if it weren’t for my husband and hers, I’d marry her, she’s so brilliant). Oh, and I’ve just begun Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters and can’t wait to find out why it blows everyone’s mind.

The L: Thanks very much for talking with us, Lauren, and best of luck with the new book.

LG: Thank you!