Lauren Groff: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Lauren Groff is the author of the well-received 2008 novel The Monsters of Templeton and Delicate Edible Birds, a collection of short stories. Her second novel, Arcadia, is out this month from Hyperion.

Like your first novel, Arcadia is set in upstate New York, where you grew up (as did I). How do you think the area has shaped the things and people you write about?

I find that I can only write about places after I've been absent from them for a while. I've lived in Florida for six years, now, which only makes me love upstate New York more. I grew up there, and it seems that when I want to write through or about a childlike sense of wonder, I reach for the place I remember as a child. Also, I miss the lilacs and the icicles and the rolling hills and the cold lakes in the summer, and this sense of loss makes me long to return there when I sit down to work in my hot and humid studio.

You've set one section of Arcadia in the future, 2018 specifically. Did you find writing scenes in the future any different from writing scenes set in the past, or in the present?

It was strangely exhilarating to write scenes set in the very near future: it wasn't as pure an imaginative leap as writing a hundred years in the future would be, and it required research and thought into where we are in the world right now. It was as if I had a photograph of the present, and my job was to paint beyond the bounds of the frame.

Tied up in Arcadia is the fascinating and elusive idea of utopian communities: did you find yourself doing much research into historical views or depictions of this topic as you wrote? If so, was there a particular source that you enjoyed or found most useful?

There are many books about both philosophical utopias and real-life attempted ones on my shelves. I find the utopian urge to be a deeply American one: in fact, in the first half of the nineteenth century, there were over forty utopian intentional communities created (and lost) in America. The two that were among the most successful, and therefore the most devastating when they collapsed, were Oneida in central New York in the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century community called The Farm in Tennessee. I visited both places for overnight stays and loved them both.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you make it a reality?

I've always been passionate about books, but to become a creator of the things I loved most in the world seemed impossibly difficult, and possibly even narcissistic, when I was little. I didn't know any writers. I didn't know that they were normal people and not gilded demi-angels selected by the gods. It began to dawn on me that I could do this, too, when I took a writing class in college, taught by a real, live novelist. After I graduated, I made my poor parents suffer a little because I declared that I was going to be a writer, and I did many terrible jobs for a few years to be able to teach myself how to write fiction. Then I went to graduate school, which gave me two years in which I wrote as much as I possibly could, and learned a great deal.

When do you do most of your writing? Do you compose longhand, or at the computer?

Most of my novel writing happens in the morning, after I pack my boys off to school and the babysitter. My short stories happen in urgent bursts, and I will do anything to follow the story as it goes blazing by—call in emergency babysitting reinforcements, forget to eat, force my husband to take care of the house and children until the story upwelling has passed and I've finished my first draft. I write, always, in longhand, until the third or fourth draft. I like the physicality of crouching over a piece of paper and the tactile nature of crossing things out and scribbling good words over bad ones.

Do you have a favorite part of the writing process? Or is there one element that you absolutely can't stand?

I adore research. I can research until I'm drowning in books. I love everything about writing, to be honest. Even when it makes me cry because I can't figure out how to do what I long so desperately to do, I love my work and feel grateful to get to do it every day.

Tell us about your own library. What sorts of books do you own? What are your favorites?

I have so many books that my husband forces me to go through them every few months and weed them out. Otherwise, our shelves would collapse the living-room floor. My very favorite are short story collections, and among my favorite writers are Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Anne Carson, and Alice Munro. Choosing favorite books of theirs feels a little scandalous, as if I were asked to choose which of their children I think are the prettiest. They are all pretty, every single one of their books.

What have you read recently that you enjoyed? What are you reading now?

I'm enjoying Megan Mayhew Bergman's first book, the story collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise, and I'm in love with Shaun Tan's The Arrival. I'm slowly reading at night the collected poems of Hart Crane. I read a great deal of poetry. It's the best thing for fiction writers to read to learn about structure and wordplay.

Do you have a sense yet of your next project?

I do! But I'm superstitious and know that the fastest way to kill a tender green project is to talk about it, so I can't tell you about it. But I love the project so far, whatever the thing ends up being.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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