We’ve been a little obsessed with Lauren Groff since we first read her short story “L. DeBard and Aliette,” a re-telling of the love story of Abelard and Heloise set against the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918. Her debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, demonstrates her spectacular flair for using history to embroider her fiction. Templeton is a “slantwise version” of Cooperstown, borrowed from another novelist from the area, James Fenimore Cooper, and Templeton’s history is populated with characters from Fenimore Cooper’s novels. The result is a charming and sometimes heartbreaking pastiche of faux historical documents that dips just slightly into the stuff of fairy tales.
Fairy tales, and Templeton itself, appear again in her new short story collection, Delicate Edible Birds. In the opening story, a modern Templeton teenager watches her town fall apart after a scandal, and finds solace in the metaphorical morality of folk tales and myths. After that, though, we are unmoored from Templeton, and we’re following Groff through time and space: Argentina in the ’60s; Paris as the Nazis descend; an unspecified banana republic at what might be the turn of the century or might be yesterday. Groff is a skillful and inventive tour guide, and recently she gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of her work. Highlights from our conversation appear after the jump.
Flavorwire: Was writing always your calling? When did you start?
Lauren Groff: If you ask this question of most writers, they probably say the same thing, which is that they started off as enormous readers. I was really, really shy as a little girl and mostly I lived in books. It was more real than my own life… one day when I was still pretty young, I read something and I thought “You know, that wasn’t all that great. I wonder if I can do better.” So I tried, and obviously, it wasn’t better. And I worked and worked… you just get into it and you start doing the first writing that you do and you invest your whole soul into the first story and it’s just an addiction. So that’s what happened with me. I was a reader, and I became a writer through reading. I think that’s a fairly normal course of events for a writer. I took my first and only workshop class in college, and then as soon as I graduated I had so many crappy jobs in order to support my writing, and I eventually went and got my MFA at Wisconsin, which was the best decision I made.
FW: We noticed in the acknowledgements of both of your books, Lorrie Moore is mentioned. We wondered if you had any anxiety about bringing out a short story collection with “birds” in the title.
LG: That’s so funny! It wasn’t until I’d submitted the manuscript and it got accepted that I even realized… Lorrie’s collection, I love, and that’s the reason I went to Wisconsin, because of her… I love her to death! But it’s a very different story collection. I wish I could write like her. I think everybody wishes they could write like Lorrie. But her title was used before by Mary McCarthy, too, so I didn’t feel too bad about that.
FW: Another trope that comes up a lot in Monsters of Templeton and almost every story is water, swimming pools and natural bodies of water. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you as a symbol, why it’s something you come back to?
LG: I was just at an event the other day, and a really wonderful writer by the name of John Burnham Schwartz said that he thought that writers have only a handful of questions and they spend their lives looking at these questions from different angles. It wasn’t until I had actually done… the second book that I realized I was so in love with swimming, even though I haven’t swum in a competitive way since high school. There’s something about swimming, about fiction writing, that is very similar. It’s very sensual. I think it’s the most sensual sport out there, and good fiction writing is like that, too. You feel like you’re submerged in a new world… it’s the same kind of feeling as getting involved in a very good book, or a really good story that you love… When you’re putting a collection together, you probably have, I don’t know, fifty stories to choose from, and you just try to find more subtle and less subtle thematic linkages between the stories. That was one of the less subtle thematic linkages. For a while we were toying with a couple of water-related titles, but none of them really worked, so I just used the title from “Delicate Edible Birds,” the story. That was a pretty interesting idea about the nature of short stories themselves, that they’re delicate and they’re edible and they’re flighty like birds.
FW: Sticking with the water thing for a minute, let’s talk about “L. DeBard and Aliette.” How did this Olympic swimmer, who did really exist and who the story is loosely based on, and Heloise come together?
LG: I was living in Madison at the time, which is a very, very cold place in the winter. And surrounded by water, Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, they sort of sandwich this little isthmus where the university sits. So I’m surrounded by all this water, and I couldn’t swim in it because it was too cold. And I had written a really, really poor, failed novel based on Abelard and Heloise… I think it’s a really beautiful love story, and it didn’t work because I wasn’t ready to tell the story yet. That winter was a really hard one for me… I felt like I was bursting out of my skin in a lot of ways. So I did what I normally do when life gets a little hard, I read a lot. I read this wonderful collection of poetry called Kyrie by Ellen Bryant Voigt, and she is a ridiculously talented poet, and it was about the 1918 flu epidemic. And then at the same time, the idea of women athletes has always been fascinating to me, primarily because my little sister Sarah is a professional triathlete, and her presentation of her body as her living [is] in a way that’s based on prowess and not based on physical beauty. That presentation of the female body as a work of art is amazing. And so I started researching a lot of old figures in sports who were women, and Ethelda Bleibtrey popped up. She was ridiculous. She had polio, and then she tried to get her body back in shape by swimming and became a multiple gold medalist at the Stockholm Olympics. She’s just unbelievable. It was just the confluence of three large ideas… I just knew when they met and exploded, that was the story that I had to tell. So, that was lucky… That happens once in a while, and when it does you just have to be humble and grateful, and it doesn’t happen nearly as often as you want it to.
FW: Another thing we noticed in a bunch of the stories, and in the way that The Monsters of Templeton is structured, is that there’s sort of a sense of collective voice, like a Greek chorus. The story is coming from a lot of different perspectives; in Monsters, we’re hearing from a lot of different characters, and then “The Dictator’s Wife” is written in the first-person collective voice. Is that something you’re particularly drawn to, or does the story demand to be told that way? What are your instincts with that?
LG: I gave [the book] to one of my friends from MFA school who is the best reader I’ve ever had. She gave me 40 pages of input on the story collection, which was awesome. But she said, “Try to look at your work as a whole. You’re fascinated with the idea of community.” And as soon as she said that, a light went off in my head. That’s absolutely the case. It’s one of the five questions that I have that I circle around and around in my life… because I came from Cooperstown, with is a tiny little town, and the feeling of community is so deeply entrenched. Also we have so many visitors to the town, you have to have a really tight community if you’re going to support so many visitors. So it’s just something that I grew up with, and something that really does fascinate me. My next novel — I’m struggling to understand what I’m even writing about right now — is based on the idea of community, again… I just love to throw a person into a microcosm, like my Templeton that is based on Cooperstown, to see what happens. That’s what happened with “Lucky Chow Fun.” I was writing Monsters, and I was just so frustrated because I’d done three drafts already, and I thought this book would never go out the door. It was going to kill me… I needed to make a preliminary Templeton that would work, I would dip in, dip out, and I would be done, and it would be my prism… So I did “Lucky Chow Fun” in about a week, and I was so glad that I did, because it taught me… what my Templeton was about, and why I really needed to write about such a small, such an old community. I kind of forgot your question, actually.
FW: That’s okay. You did a pretty good job of answering it. Do you think you’ll set more stories in Templeton, or do you think that you’re done with it?
LG: I think I’m done with Templeton… It almost feels easy to go back to it. I’m not quite at the place where I want writing to be easy. I want it to be kind of difficult and challenging and I don’t want to know what I’m doing… I won’t go back to Templeton until some day, when I realize that I have nothing else to say.
FW: In terms of posing challenges for yourself as a writer…in addition to place, all of your stories, where they are in time seems to be really important. What inspires you about different time periods?
LG: … It’s the nature of writing, you use a set of symbols that has been accepted by the community at large to understand a given situation that you’re writing about. That’s what language is, but that’s also what positioning some one in time and place is… you need your reader to be able to understand what the pressures are of the society upon the individual in that time and place. For example, we all have an idea in general of what it is to be a young in, say, 1793, and it’s the job of the writer to make that specific. I use time in order to show the societal pressures upon a person. That’s what’s really interesting to me, because of the change that happens…especially in the last century, talking about the position of women in the world, which is pretty much what my book is about… I’m not by any means a historical writer and I’ll never be. I don’t have that brain. But I like to use history, and I do a ton of research. But once in a while when something occurs to me that I think is better when I make it up, I’ll be more faithful to my idea of the story and my characters, rather than the true history that actually happened. That gets me into trouble a lot with historians, they don’t quite understand why I feel the need to do that, and I’ve been called arrogant more than once. I can live with it… I’ve heard a really brilliant writer say that historical fiction is almost impossible to do, and is something that probably shouldn’t be done, because there’s this whole baggage of history that you have to explain as well as the story that you have to explain. I think maybe in my recalcitrance, I wrote some pieces based in historical periods because I didn’t want to be told what not to do. So that might be why. I love reading about strange things, and history is full of weird, weird people.
FW: You said that you wrote “Lucky Chow Fun” in about a week. Is that standard?
LG: God, I wish! What happens is, I write a ton of stories… I have two rules. One is, I have to write every day, even if it’s for ten minutes. And my other rule is that if I start on something, I have to finish it. So I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of really bad stories that don’t succeed… but in every one, there’s something that I want to take, if it’s a character, or a half of a phrase, I end up using it later. Even though I say “Lucky Chow Fun” took a week to write, it’s built on the foundations of about ten failed stories… I was slowly whittling away at what I wanted to write about in that situation. That’s pretty much how my stories are. There’s a story in the collection that really, I started 15 years ago [“Fugue”]. But I didn’t know how to write it, and over billions of drafts, I still didn’t know how to write it, and it took so many years. It’s based on a scene that I had lived through in my youth, … My mom was really into antiques. So we went [antiquing] one day, and I found myself in this room that was dripping with Gothic gloom. And in the book I was reading at the time, which was an Agatha Christie book, I scribbled down some notes. I think that was my first attempt at that story. And over the years I tried and tried and tried, and eventually came out with the story that’s there. I love drafts, I love having vague and unformulated things that are not set in stone. I write in longhand, so that I can change everything and cross things out. As soon as it goes onto the computer, it feels very solid to me. If I get through the first longhand draft and I realize that it’s not going to work, I put it aside, and those elements will show up at some other time. Learning that sort of patience that has been the most valuable thing for me as a writer…
FW: What are you working on now?
LG: I don’t really know yet. It’s called Arcadia, and I sold it, but it’s not really fleshed out. But I’m really interested in this idea of community, especially in really tight, energetic communities, and so I started thinking about utopias. And I did all sorts of research on utopias, Thomas Moore, [Christine de] Pizan, up to Ursula LeGuin… I love the idea of the moment when a utopia breaks apart. There’s something so heartbreaking in that, when something that people have invested their entire lives and souls and minds into just falls apart. So I’m trying to find the structure for the story. I have the characters. I just don’t know yet what they’re saying to me, or I don’t know yet how to tell their story. But who knows when it’ll be done. I just had a baby, and he takes up all my time.
LG: Oh, thank you! …Everything is cast in a whole new light, and things that were important before are so not important now.
FW: Is it hard to be away on a book tour now that you’re a mom?
LG: No, he’s with me! My husband, too. I wouldn’t leave him for more than a week, I would just quit. He’s super great. He’s the most calm and patient baby. He’s my husband’s son, 90 percent, there’s only 10 percent of me in him. Thank God. He’s able to deal with everything. The other thing about bringing a baby on tour is that people give you the benefit of the doubt, so if I’m five minutes late, the driver’s not that angry with me. Or if I show up flustered to a reading, people can understand… But it’s hard to write with a baby in the house.
FW: What are the best and worst parts of being on tour?
LG: The best is actually going to bookstores that you’ve heard about all your life. Like I went to the Tattered Cover in Denver the other day, and I’m pretty much in love. That is the best bookstore… I’m going to Powell’s, which I’ve been to once, and it is the city of books. I can’t wait to be there. And to actually talk to people who are as in love with books as you are is just wonderful. Other writers and readers and booksellers. Just to be in the mix is so much fun…we started out with one suitcase for us and three suitcases for the baby, and I think we’re actually going to have to buy another suitcase just for books that I keep picking up. It’s ridiculous.
The worst thing is, I can’t really write. I try. I sit down. I banish the husband and the baby for fifteen minutes in the morning and try. It’s sort of like exercise. But you just can’t. I mean, I can’t. I’m sure Stephen King could, but I couldn’t. The food is really good, too.