The Rumpus Interview with Lauren Groff

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Anyone who knows Lauren Groff’s fiction would not be surprised to find that as a child in upstate New York her favorite stories were Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and by her teens she was determined to be a writer. After completing her MFA at University of Wisconsin-Madison, she worked odd jobs that allowed her hours to write every day, which she still does in a corner of her drafty garage in Gainesville, Florida. She is strategically diligent and meticulous, with a process that often includes several cycles of producing full drafts, setting them aside, and rewriting them entirely. By her mid-twenties her work started appearing in the Atlantic Monthly, Glimmer Train, and One Story, eventually selected for the Best American, Pushcart Prize, and O’Henry anthologies. Her first novel Monsters of Templeton (2008) was published when she was twenty-nine, garnering praise from writers like Stephen King and Lorrie Moore, going on to become a bestseller and a finalist for the Orange Prize.

I came to know Lauren two years ago when she visited the university where I teach and co-chair a visiting writer series in Tacoma, Washington. The series is a vital extension of my position, and I try to invite authors whose work I think my students will appreciate and whom I believe will be generous teachers, during both the afternoon Q/A and the evening’s reading. I had read Lauren’s collection Delicate Edible Birds (2009) the previous year and was taken by the strong, eccentric characters throughout the book and her kaleidoscopic approach to narrative design; the stories are idiosyncratic, multi-layered, and insightful. I later heard her speak at a writer’s conference, on a panel about handling multiple points-of-view in novels, where she was thoughtful, articulate, funny, and kind. Months passed and I sent her the invite, fairly certain she would decline. In part because of the small honorarium, but also because of the cross-country flight. I didn’t know at the time she was also pregnant with her second child. But she said yes, and she offered to teach an afternoon workshop.  In the weeks leading up to her visit, students read her collection and started drawing from her technique. When Lauren came their affection deepened: she spoke about her process, her favorite novel—George Eliot’s Middlemarch—and read from her forthcoming novel, for which she had just that day received the cover. She explained it was a book about a boy who grows up on a commune and later goes on to live in New York City. For the duration of the semester, students cited what she taught them during the workshop and carried around their copies of Delicate Edible Birds, as if they were now required texts.

The book from which she read that night is her second novel, Arcadia. Spanning fifty years, it focuses on the establishment and unraveling of a utopian community in western New York, and the development of its first-born, Ridley Sorrell Stone—nicknamed “Bit” because of his small size. A perceptive boy with a visceral connection to his environment, Bit’s edification among The Freedom People—who denounce individual property and have no monetary system—includes midwifery, marijuana cultivation, and group discussions on history and philosophy, conversations that cast light on problems within the collective. They want to live with the land, but must contend with overpopulation and human fallibility, problems that eventually overwhelm them. As an adult in present day New York City, Bit struggles with life as a photographer, professor, and single father, dealing with loneliness in an ever-connected world. As a pandemic sweeps through the country, he and other Arcadians search to find middle ground in a time wrought with contentions between community and the individual, environment and human nature.

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The Rumpus: What sparked your interest in utopian communities and how did that develop, enough to want to write a novel about one?

Lauren Groff: A lot of my work comes from a place of despair or fear. I often write in order to gain some sort of control over aspects of my life or the world that seem too dark to look at directly. In the case of Arcadia, I was pregnant with my first son, and I am a terrible pregnant person, the opposite of radiant—I’m anxious and grow depressed—because bringing a child into the world is such a terribly fraught ethical problem. We don’t need the pressure of one more person on the Earth; why would I bring a baby into a world with a future that’s so clearly barreling toward disaster? Dystopias had a magnetic draw for me, but they just made me more depressed. I had to make a conscious effort to begin reading about utopias, and, by extension, the wild-eyed visionaries who willfully step out of the world they disagree with, who put everything on the line to breathe life into their vision of a better world. I fell in love with them; they tugged me out of the pit. I loved their utopian projects even—especially—when they failed, because I began to see the tremendous beauty in the hard work and hope they poured into their visions, no matter what the end-result was. At one point, I, vast with baby, wedged myself behind the wheel of my car and visited two of the great American utopian ruins, the 19th-century Oneida in western New York State, and 20th-century The Farm in Tennessee. Arcadia, the place, was kindled by both.

Rumpus: You spent a year reading and researching for your previous novel, Monsters of Templeton, before writing a word of it. Can you talk about the research that went into Arcadia?

Groff: Research is about following the gleam into the dark. It’s also about being sensitive enough to know which fact, as Virginia Woolf says, is “the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders,” as opposed to the fact that deadens and kills a delicate new project. I try not to think too much or be too impatient, and let the back of my brain do its mysterious work. The place came from the project of the novel and vice versa. I did read a lot at first: Plato’s Republic, Utopia, Erewhon, Looking Backward, News From Nowhere, City of the Sun, Walden Two, Herland. It has been four years since I read them, and my memory is mushy, but the list can go on and on. At the same time, I looked at actual communities including Amana, New Harmony, Shaker sites (there’s a semi-abandoned one near the airport in Albany; I skulked around, peering in the windows one afternoon), Ephrata, Oleanna, Twin Oaks, Brook Farm, various Drop Cities. My not-too-distant ancestors are Amish—there’s a Groffdale in Lancaster County—and I think of the Amish as having the ur-intentional community. Oneida and The Farm provided most of the physical details because I spent a number of days in each place. The building of Arcadia House came from my overnight visit to the Oneida Mansion House (which functions as a kind of inn; there was one other guest in this vast brick heap, and deep in the night it was full of ghostly noises). I copied Arcadia House directly from my memories of Mansion House. And the first incarnation of Arcadia came from the way The Farm was set up, with bread-trucks and lean-tos and a bakery and soy dairy and gatehouse. The ideology was a magpie mash-up of the Shakers, Oneida, The Farm, Fourierism (sans anti-Semitism), William Morris, and my own longing for community.

The physical place of Arcadia came from the project of the novel and vice versa. Also, I kept on my wall this print from Sir Thomas More’s first edition of his Utopia. It gave me some initial idea of the physical space of the book. I kept drawing my own representations of the space as the book grew, which I’d share, except that I draw like a four-year-old.

Rumpus: It seems like any commune is a social experiment, which puts you, as a person writing a fictional account of a commune, in an interesting position. In what ways did your creation of Arcadia—establishing a location, the types of jobs that would exist, and its system of governance—feel like creating a commune, in a theoretical sense? In what ways did it feel like creating your own commune? As you established Arcadia and wrote through its existence, did you feel like an outsider, watching it objectively, or an insider, experiencing it subjectively?

Groff: Writing is the lonely sport of sad sacks. I was especially lonely during the writing of Arcadia, because I was new to my community and didn’t really know anyone in Gainesville. It’s not easy to make friends when you’re an adult writer outside of academia, especially when you work alone in a little room for twelve hours a day, and so I wrote toward what I most longed for. In this case, I longed for an ideal community, and I wrote from outside to inside, from objective to subjective. When I write new worlds, I work in layers, building and throwing out, and building anew. As with most of my work, I started from the abstract, from research, building an intellectual model that slowly became internalized when the characters came alive. It’s fascinating what happens to the model you’ve so assiduously assembled when characters are allowed to run rampant: things you thought essential are broken and other things are vastly improved. One day, years into the project, I realized that the model I thought through to the tiniest details was no longer mine—it was the characters’—and at the same time very deeply mine, because I loved it with abandon, more than my real-life environment with its palmetto bugs and clammy heat and Spanish moss that I moved through every day. Maybe this is why I delivered it two years late.

Rumpus: Many of your central characters in the past have been women. What made you decide to focus on a male character as the central figure for this book? What was it like writing this character, taking on Bit’s unique perspective?

Groff: I never made a conscious decision to write from a male perspective in this book: as soon as I discovered that the child I was carrying was a boy, some valve opened in my brain and I began writing from the point of view of men. It was strange, especially since Delicate Edible Birds was so fiercely feminist.

In regards to writing from Bit’s perspective, I knew every detail about him from birth onward, and when you know a child so deeply, you know the adult he’ll be. When I came to an impasse, I just thought of my son, Beckett. Babies are miraculous, with very defined personalities from the moment they’re born, and my son shares a lot of traits with Bit—the gentleness, the watchfulness, the enormous heart and courage. They’re different people because they have different foundational experiences, but Bit is who Beck would have been if he had been raised in Arcadia. If uncertain about a scene, I’d imagine my son within my model and then I’d watch how he’d act.

Rumpus: Bit spends the first fourteen years of his life in Arcadia. What was your intent in making the central figure someone whose early development occurs on a commune, who never ventures beyond its perimeter for the first part of his life?

Groff: When I read about communities falling apart, I was always struck by what happened to the children who lived in them since birth: they were often the greatest sufferers. There are some heartbreaking tales about the children of Oneida, for instance. There was a eugenics experiment there (they called it stirpiculture), and I wondered how the babies from the unions between very old men and their 14-year-old breeding partners grew up in the larger world after Oneida fell apart: what kind of taint the children had to deal with from being born out of wedlock and how their mothers handled raising them. I also read Chelsea Cain’s Wild Child, which gave me a billion things to think about when it came to children raised in the counterculture. Plus, I love writing from enclosed spaces: you really learn about your characters when they have tight walls to push against. Throw three people into a rowboat or an elevator and you’ll learn about their personalities very quickly.

Rumpus: Arcadia spans fifty years of Bit’s life—1968-2018—divided into four distinct sections, each focusing individually on periods where dramatic cultural shifts are taking place: the early seventies when communes were prevalent; the eighties when Reagonomics was introduced; the current digital age; and the future where a pandemic occurs. What compelled you to start the book in the seventies and have it span this time frame, while capturing an individual’s life? Is there something about this particular timetable—the last half-century—that to you speaks distinctly to the relationship between community and the individual?

Groff: My vision of the book from the start was that it would be as much about loss as it would be about hope, about trying and failing and how to live with failure. No matter what you think of the story of the Garden of Eden, it’s also the story of an individual’s life. We’re all born from warmth and safety into brightness, loudness, confusion, pain. Every human experiences this. And Eden is mostly boring. Things become interesting after Adam and Eve are cast out in shame and anguish. That’s what most interested me about the story of Arcadia; what happens to the idealists after their hard-wrought ideal goes up in flames. Also, I think that writers have natural canvases, and my canvas, even in short stories, often seems to be the scope of a life.

Everything is cyclical. Historical eras go through times of intense cynicism, broken by periods of intense idealism. I love the surge of idealism in the late sixties and early seventies, and felt drawn to it when I began writing the book in 2008, in the thick of our current deeply cynical era (which I hope is in the process of being flattened by new populist juggernauts like the Occupy Movement). I saw passivity and heard only a kind of anguished silence, and it panicked me to the point that, for my mental health, I had to hold fast to a time of action and hope.

It seems to me that if you were to take almost any half-century in history, you’d find a grand societal tug-of-war between the community and the individual. The last half-century seems especially illustrative of reactionary social trends: the Age of Aquarius as reaction against the hysteria over Communism, The Age of Reagan as reaction against the hippies, The Age of Clinton as a brief thawing period before the Age Of The Neverending War In The Middle East. Are we coming into the Age of Occupy? That remains to be seen.

Rumpus: The word “connect”, or some form of it, appears frequently in Arcadia. I was wondering if you could speak to what this word means to you, both as a person born on the cusp of the digital age – making you old enough to remember a time without it, and young enough to realize its potential – where “connected” is used ubiquitously, and as a fiction writer, where there’s the argument that at the crux of most stories is the desire for connection. How did your relationship with the word play out while writing the novel?

Groff: We are cuspies, aren’t we? There’s a glow to that time before things went all matrix on us, before everyone was plugged into the mainframe by their fingertips. I wrote my college applications with a typewriter, by god!  You had to pick up a landline to make sure your best friend wore a matching outfit to school. I do remember people talking more. Nostalgia is dangerous, though, and I can’t tell whether those days actually were more authentically connected, whether they seemed so because I was an adolescent, or whether memory is spackling everything over with a thick layer of pretty-pretty. In my real life, I feel both more connected and less: I write all day alone, seeing no people save for the babies and babysitter, and I’m always hungry for people. I never thought I’d say this, but I love Twitter. It’s like having a closet full of clever friends that you can visit twice a day, then shove back into the darkness when you’re tired of them. In terms of writing, I think what most fiction writers treasure more than anything is the feeling that they’re living for the length of a book inside another person. More than one person: while writing, writers are living inside a character or characters, and when the book ekes into the world, writers are living inside the reader. That’s more than connecting. It’s Venn-diagramming. It’s a tremendous privilege and so beautiful it’ll blow off the lid of your skull. One of the deep questions in Arcadia is how much a person or community can be a part of things; what is the best way to be in the world, how does one reconcile freedom and community, how can a person love this (stunning, tragic) world we have?

Rumpus: Historically it seems most communes don’t succeed, and this is the case with Arcadia as well. Can you talk about why communes fail? Did you know, getting into this project, that this place you were creating—a place you eventually came to love with abandon—would fall apart, and the reasons it would fall apart? Were you surprised by how Arcadia unraveled, and can you describe the feeling of writing its demise?

Groff: In my totally unscientific yet enthusiastic survey of Communal Experiments Throughout American History, I’ve discovered that the thing most likely to break up said experiments is: Sex, all that murky, dark, dirty gunk simmering beneath human relations. Groups that try to regulate sex in ways outside of the norms of the mainstream sometimes collapse under the pressure of the outside world. Groups that don’t regulate it enough implode because of internal bonds, as in parents who have to watch their preteen girls being seduced by nasty old men, or lovers being separated in favor of non-exclusivity. If you look at communal experiments in general for any amount of time, you’ll find a lot of horrors: raped children, sexual slavery, eugenics experiments, on and on. The groups that succeed for longest are the ones that banish sex (celibate religious communities) or that keep it within strict familial bounds and rules (separatist religious communities like the Amish).

A caveat: I do know that by boiling it down to sex, I am simplifying everything I know about these communities, and is not doing a lot of justice to the tremendous complications involved. I wish I could bloviate for ten more pages, but sex is a good starting point for everything (heh).

Arcadia falls apart because of sex and an influx of free-loaders and a lack of money and a host of other issues: I could sense from the beginning that that was the way my little experiment was going to end. That doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt. It did, very much. But. My hackles rise whenever I hear someone spouting off about writing being therapy—I think that’s it’s a dangerously addlepated way to think about art, and the surest sign of a dilettante—but at the same time you do have to write from the very darkest places in yourself, or else you risk nothing. My deepest horror, now that I have two helpless doughy creatures who depend on me for everything, is that of apocalypse. The ash-cloud. The hurricane. The airborne toxic event. The roving zombies. In that sense, to have an apocalypse in a microcosm—in a made-up commune, in a novel—is a tremendous release of pressure.

Rumpus: During this time, as you learned more about utopian communities, did you ever wish to live on one yourself, and what that life would be like for you?

Groff: Well, no: I’ve never wanted to chuck my mortgage, drop the kids off at their grandparents’ and run gloriously naked in fields of flax. Being a writer means I sit in a dark (and pretty dank) room off my garage for many hours a day, and in my wallowing moments I can feel as if I’m already on the outside of society, peering wistfully in. I also have a suspicion of walking away and starting anew; if given a choice, I’d prefer to fix from inside. The answer is also yes, of course I want to live in a utopia. The book came from a total gut-punch reaction to the unavoidable awfulness of the world, which is all I could see at the time I needed to begin it. I longed to change the world, but was overwhelmed with how to do so, and had to settle for a smaller and more urgent task of imagination. The triumph of writing fiction is that by doing so, writers can build a more ideal world in themselves. Even on days when the work was all a bloody failure, I still had that project, which itself became a space apart to breathe and think. Besides, fiction is always a utopian task, in that there’s an ideal you hold in your head as you write which inevitably fails in the moment of creation, in the insufficiency of words to convey meaning, or in the way the work is completed in the reader’s head. At the same time, it’s wonderful that nothing you write is ever going to be as beautiful as what’s in your head, because that gap is where the art can enter and begin to stretch its limbs.


Jason Skipper is the author of the novel Hustle, a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction. His work has appeared in numerous journals, including Hotel Amerika and Mid-American Review, and he’s received awards and recognition from Zoetrope: All-Story, Glimmer Train, and Crab Orchard Review. He teaches at Pacific Lutheran University and lives in Tacoma, Washington. You can find him online at http://www.jasonskipper.com. More from this author →