S. TREMAINE NELSON interviews LAUREN GROFF
Lauren Groff is the New York Times bestselling author of The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia, as well as the enviably acclaimed short story collection Delicate Edible Birds. Her forthcoming novel Fates and Furies will be published by in September by Riverhead. Lauren and S. Tremaine Nelson connected over Skype for a few minutes, inexplicably without sound, communicating with primitive hand gestures and unrecognizable symbols, until they agreed to give up on that futuristic technology and connect the old-fashioned way, over the phone. They spoke for about an hour, covering a variety of topics like tailgating, running, reading, and, of course, writing.
S. Tremaine Nelson (SN): Literary interviews are often too heavy and self-serious, so I’m wondering if we can start off with a few important questions about pop culture.
Lauren Groff (LG): Of course.
SN: First, who is your favorite band?
LG: Right now, Sigur Ros. I’ve been into them for years. I love that ambient, screaming sound.
SN: How about your number one celebrity crush?
LG: Yes! I don’t even know what the actor’s name is, but I really like Thor.
SN: The super tall blonde dude [Chris Hemsworth]?
LG: Right. Exactly. Him.
SN: Okay: a dinner party with three writers, one living, two dead.
LG: George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Marilynne Robinson.
SN: Dickens would probably just talk forever. Paid by the word and all.
LG: I’m sure he would, but George Eliot would put him in his place.
SN: So you grew up in Cooperstown, New York, went to college at Amherst, did your MFA at Wisconsin. How’d you end up in Gainesville, Florida?
LG: Well, my husband took over the family business. He’s from here.
SN: In your recent New Yorker story, “Ghosts and Empties,” the narrator walks around her North Florida town at night looking through the glass windows into people’s lives, experiencing loneliness in a way. Is any of that based on your experience of living in Gainesville?
LG: I spend many hours every week walking and running. When you do that, you’re not interacting with human beings, besides observing them. In a way, I’m such a hermit: I go to the gym, or I go for a run, and then I spend all day being a hermit—and for me that’s the best situation possible. It’s a good thing for a writer to feel a little bit lonely.
SN: With running, is that where the muse comes to you or is it a place to zone out?
LG: A little of both. I’m a very physical writer, so I have a standing desk, I have a treadmill, and if things are going poorly I’ll go work out. I have to get up and move to think things through some time.
SN: This past summer, I read all three of your novels straight through.
LG: That is awesome.
SN: It was awesome. I actually read Arcadia on an island without running water or electricity. And, in that remote setting, I experienced the profound sadness of Bit Stone so intensely. How were you able to translate the disillusionment of Arcadia with such intensity?
LG: First all, your vacation sounds amazing [laughter]. I knew from the beginning that I wanted a Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained setup. Most of the work was getting up to the emotional place where the fall of Arcadia would be so devastating. The main character, Bit, he had to be old enough but also young enough to be idealistic and observant.
SN: So that the reader could experience it through his eyes.
LG: Right, exactly. In the book’s whole emotional trajectory Bit was, frankly, an incredibly difficult character to write, because it’s really hard to write good people. It’s much easier to write a villain. To make a nice person feel alive—well, that’s hard. That was a big challenge for that book.
SN: In your new book Fates and Furies, the husband, Lotto, like Bit, wants to love everyone, except he’s like a hyper-masculine version of Bit. They’re both artists, too. It’s an interesting parallel. Are they cut of the same silk or are they completely disparate creations?
LG: I find Lotto intensely egotistical, arrogant, and charming in a way that would never be Bit. At a party, Bit would be in the corner, blushing, staring into his wine, whereas Lotto would be doing keg stands.
SN: So Fates and Furies tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s rich, turbulent marriage: what was the most challenging part of telling their story?
LG: The hardest thing for Fates was figuring out the timeline, to show the things from different perspectives. I wrote it differently, too. For the first few years, it was just these pieces of butcher paper on the wall. I would write something about Lotto and then do the same thing for Mathilde. It was more of a map, in a way. With Arcadia I knew the structure before I knew anything else. I always want to write a book that’s different than the book I did before. I have so much respect for writers who are able to write the same kind of book over and over again. I don’t think that’s the best thing for me to do.
SN: Do you find yourself identifying more with Lotto or Mathilde?
LG: Both! When you’re writing characters you write yourself into every character. In a way, Lotto is an apology to my husband [laughter]. I know there are times in my life when I’m totally involved in my work, work comes first, before kids, before husband, and I’ll make dinner and it’ll be bad because I’ll be working through something in a book. I would also love to have the self-control that Mathilde has. She’s very cold. But I’m not like that. She’s cool in a way I’ve never been.
SN: She’s powerful in a way that’s understated.
LG: Right, right. And no one exists above her. That sort of power and ability to hold your tongue is what my husband has and I don’t. This is a book for him, almost as an apology, and an explication of what’s been happening.
SN: Is there anything he’d find surprising in it?
LG: No, he laughs at it all. We’ve been together since 1999 and I’ve been writing all that time. The very first time he saw himself in a short story he wrote, “blah,” on it and he threw it at me [laughter]. But now he laughs because there are obvious things about him. Lotto is six feet six, and so is my husband. Lotto was briefly an actor, and so was my husband.
SN: The commune [from Arcardia] also shows up in The Monsters of Templeton. I have to ask: did you grow up in a commune?
LG: No. [Laughter]. No, definitely not. Arcadia and Monsters came out of a time of intense loneliness for me. Arcadia came out of feeling alien in Florida. I was pregnant, without friends, hot, unhappy. It’s not necessarily that the commune mattered so much, but the community did, and a feeling that I had no community. When I was pregnant, I was so scared about the end of the world, and I started doing all this bad research, and I felt like the only way human beings could survive was to live in a commune.
SN: I felt so certain these were stories that were handed down to you.
LG: Well, they were. I talked to people who lived on communes. It’s not imaginary in any way. I read a lot of books. I know it’s not direct living, but for people who live in books like you and I do, it’s as close as we can get.
SN: Throughout Fates, the voice of the Fates subtly interjects and comments on the story, elevating the book from realism to something more experimental and strange. Were the Fates always there in the beginning as you started writing?
LG: I wanted to do something with Fate and Fates, primarily because I was readingThe Iliad. There are these astonishing moments of meta-analysis, not Homer’s voice, and the Fates come in, and gods and goddesses come down to the fields of battle. I knew after reading The Iliad that something had to come into Fates from that book.
SN: I was going to ask—was there a novel in mind while working on this?
LG: Yes, Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge [by Evan Connell], which are astonishing books, some of the best writing in the past century. Jane Gardam’s books, too. There’s Old Filth, and then there’s The Man in the Wooden Hat, which is from the wife’s point of view.
SN: Can we talk about Lotto and Mathilde’s sexuality?
LG: Yes! I wanted to write a sexy book. It’s really hard to talk about sex.
SN: And harder to write about?
LG: Exactly. There’s this impulse in late 20th century fiction and even 21st century fiction to make sex ridiculous. And it is, frequently, but it’s also many other things. I didn’t want to reduce it to that.
SN: Why is it so notoriously difficult?
LG: It’s crazy, right? We’ve been talking about the same thing for hundreds of years. We’re part of that incredibly puritanical society. I think people are scared to write about sex because they don’t want people to make fun of them. And I get that. But it’s such an essential part of our lives, in order to not talk about it we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Your high school English teacher is going to read this book, and you’re thinking about that.
SN: That’s terrifying.
LG: I know! So it was just a fun challenge for me to do it.
SN: Do you ever think about your kids reading your books?
LG: I don’t think about it at all because they’re still so young. I don’t, and I don’t really care if they’ll read it or they won’t. I would love to have a King dynasty, you know how Stephen King’s kids are amazing writers, but it doesn’t look like it’ll go that way for me.
SN: That’s interesting. I often think about that, the hereditary aspects of art, whether poets are born or whether they’re made. Do you have an opinion about that?
LG: I don’t think it’s nature or nurture. You never know when it’s going to bite you. I think most people have a book in them. I don’t know if it’s a good book. Our daily love of language can make writers out of people who never thought of themselves that way. Whereas music, you have it or you don’t.
SN: Well, we all have the capacity for language, so we all feel privy to that medium.
LG: Yes, and writing well is a different thing. So, no, I don’t believe poets are born.
SN: Was there a moment when the art train checked into your life, or was it a slow process?
LG: I always thought of myself as a poet, even in high school, when I was writing terrifically awful poetry, until I was disabused of that notion in college. There was no dawning realization; there was no moment when I seized it.
SN: In the long-term trajectory of your writing, have you realized your ambition yet?
LG: I haven’t even started. I’m only four books in, and they’re not perfect, and I haven’t said everything I want to say. I don’t know how to do everything, and I’m very much a beginner, just like everyone else. It’s hard for everyone, and in between projects when there’s that fallow period, I do feel that I’ll never be able to work again.
SN: Do you feel relief when the project is over?
LG: Well, the benefit of working on multiple projects at once is that I’m already working on the next project. Some people are sharks—if you don’t keep moving you’ll die—and I’m kind of a shark. Which doesn’t mean I’m always writing. It doesn’t always come to you with the same facility; sometimes you just get to read for several hours.
SN: That sounds so lovely.
SN: You have to read, but if you’re writing all day you’re not consuming language. There must be some kind of balance.
LG: If you have the desire to write all day, that’s what you should be doing. Your first commitment is to your work. And then find the time at night to read.
SN: Any writers you want to give a shout out to?
LG: Sure. Rabih Alameddine. My friend Tom Hart, who writes graphic novels. He has one coming out called Rosalie Lightning.
SN: What parts of Fates are you most excited or embarrassed to read in public?
LG: I want to read the sex parts. I’m actually a very shy person, so it’ll be an educational experience for me. I would say to same thing about the most embarrassing parts.
SN: Thank you for speaking with me today!
LG: Of course. The Common is one of those magazines that helps literary culture survive.
Lauren Groff’s short story “Exquisite Corpse” is published in Issue 01 of The Common.
S. Tremaine Nelson is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and founder of The Literary Man book blog.
Headshot courtesy of LaurenGroff.com
Photo of Herbert James’s Draper by Flickr Creative Commons user Sofi.