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ed. note: A slightly modified version of this appeared in the Lighthouse Writers Workshop print newsletter, the Beacon.
There are very few things that allow me to forgive a writer her wildly prolific youth—a first book at 30, a second book at 31, etc.—but somehow Lauren Groff, like Zadie Smith and many others before her, made me do just that. Perhaps I’m diverted by the bold ambition of her stories: wide-ranging historical pieces, playful exercises with genre, and contemporary realism told with what a dark, lyrical touch. But I think it’s even more than that. Each story and novel she writes is imbued with the palpable traces of the many books and writers she’s studied and loved. She is not a writer paralyzed by the anxiety of influence, but one who embraces it in the best way.
I first became acquainted with Groff’s work when I read her story collection, Delicate Edible Birds. In her title story, a retelling of Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif”—only set in Nazi-occupied France instead of the Franco-Prussian War—a female war reporter much like Martha Gellhorn travels the French countryside with several male correspondents. The whole group is held captive by a Hitler-loving farmer, and the woman faces a harrowing choice that implicates everyone in her party. I remember thinking as I read the story, That’s the kind of fearlessness we should all aspire to.
Now, after reading Groff’s two novels, I understand that her fearlessness is combined with a rigorous commitment to craft and to the particularities of her vision. Her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, takes historical elements of Groff’s hometown, Cooperstown, NY, and its famous denizen James Fenimore Cooper, and reanimates them as Templeton, a quaint town built up around the fictional presence of Marmaduke Temple. The main character, a young woman who’s dropped out of grad school, has to negotiate a pretty universal scenario of returning home after a colossal personal failure, but with the backdrop of Templeton, the story takes on a multiplicity that made Stephen King lament finishing it: “I was sorry to see this rich and wonderful novel come to an end.”
Groff’s most recent novel, Arcadia–which made this year’s New York Times’ notable list, is a L.A. Times Book Prize finalist, and landed on a number of Top 10 lists–is based in part on failed intentional communities like Oneida and The Farm, but also tracks with Milton’s Paradise Lost and some of Paradise Regained. Arcadia follows Bit Stone, the settlement’s first native-born resident, on a lyrical journey from utopia to its last vestiges. Trying to follow the sheer number of books, research trips, and resources Groff refers to in each story she writes is dizzying, and yet her workmanship shows in every sentence and paragraph.
Lighthouse: Can you talk a little bit about how you balance homage and/or inspiration with originality in your work?
Groff: My imagination is usually kindled by something I’ve read or care deeply about, it’s very true. I find that stories come to me when they’re inspired by a book or essay or poem that I’ve been mulling over for years, that, one day, suddenly dovetails with a strong emotion that I’m feeling in my own life. This is not to say that I always write with others’ models in mind, but rather that I write many of my stories as a way of having a conversation with others’ minds. All of the stories in Delicate Edible Birds were based on the lives of real women, some famous, others from my family. Both of my novels draw from, and play with, stories from historical eras and figures. It’s in large part the way that I find my joy during the day-to-day, rear-in-the-chair grind.
Lighthouse: Is the confidence in that balance always there, or do you have to revise your way to it?
Groff: I don’t know if the confidence is always there, but the history of writing is the history of writers catching fire from other writers. The most famous of all is, of course, Shakespeare, who changed the world with his retellings. Besides, I’m nowhere near the point in a career where anyone would publish just anything I write, and I know that if I do pay homage too ungracefully, it doesn’t really matter—it won’t be published, and that’s fine, too. I try to write out of love, and when I do pay homage to others, it’s mostly out of overwhelming love for my models. The rest of it, the business part, the publishing part, matters less.
Lighthouse: How do you manage your writing life while raising a family?
Groff: The short answer is that I don’t. I have been constantly frustrated over my lack of balance during the past four years, since my eldest son was born, and most days, I go to bed despairing that I haven’t had the time I’ve wanted, and that I haven’t been able to do what I would. Whatever balance I find is balance given to me by others, in main part my husband, who does fifty percent of the housework and childrearing. Preschool teachers and babysitters and my children’s grandparents handle the rest. That said, even when I was without children, I never felt that I had done enough with my time, and this restless feeling of being unequal to the tasks before me is a productive kind of drive. It helps to get me to my studio at eight in the morning, and to stay there until I can’t any longer.
Lighthouse: I was so impressed to learn that you do all of your first drafts longhand in one fell swoop, and then throw away that first draft before starting “for reals.” Do you do this with stories and novels, or just stories?
Groff: I do this with everything I write: it just helps me figure out what I think I know about a story before really starting it. It’s like drafting blueprints before building a house. Also, I sweat sentences very painfully, and doing it this way allows me to think about the larger-scale issues before I think about the smaller-scale ones, which would otherwise keep me from seeing the whole of the mess. And it’s always a mess.
Lighthouse: What’s the most useful thing anyone ever told you about writing or the writing life?
Groff: I am not sure if anyone told me this directly, but all the writers I admire have shown me through their actions and published words that good writing comes out of a sense of gratitude and wonder. Bitterness and impatience kill stories before they are begun. Nothing is ever wasted: if a draft doesn’t work now, the story just hasn’t lived in you for long enough, and you haven’t yet found the way to tell it. I watch writers I admire struggle daily, and eventually put out things of ravishing beauty. Through that process alone, they have silently and clearly shown me that their work is born from wringing patience and dedication out of every day they are lucky to write.
We’re so pleased that in a few weeks, on the weekend of April 6 & 7, Lauren will be our Fly-By Writer’s Project guest, making the trip from Gainesville, FL, where she lives with her husband and two sons. She’ll teach workshops on structure (only 7 spots left as of 3/24/13!) and the management of narrative time (only 5 spots left as of 3/24/13!)—two things that she handles exceptionally well—and will join us for a celebratory dinner with an intimate performance from Stories on Stage and a signature drink (to be determined—perhaps it’ll be something utopian).