After writing several books (A Friend of the Family, The Explanation for Everything) from a male point of view, Lauren Grodstein’s new novel, Our Short History, is an intimate glimpse into a woman’s life, at a critical juncture between life and death. Karen Neulander, the protagonist of the novel, has a six-year-old boy, Jake, whose father hasn’t been in the picture since Karen told him she was pregnant. There’s just one problem—Karen is dying.
Jake begins asking about his father, Dave, and when Karen gets in touch with him and tells him she had the baby all those years ago, he is more than happy to meet the son he didn’t even know existed; the son he couldn’t handle six years earlier. As the bond between Jake and Dave gets stronger, Karen is faced with the fact that her time with Jake is limited, especially as her body begins to give way. Written as a sort of extended letter to her son, Our Short History is Karen’s exploration of how to best spend her remaining time with her son, where Dave fits into Jake’s (and her) life, and the ever-shifting notions of love and family.
There is something very immediate about the book; perhaps it is knowing that Karen has ovarian cancer, but Grodstein’s prose cuts to the quick and vividly sets up a story filled with colorful, thoughtful characters, a good, consistent pace, and a hook that pulls you in, before you even realize what’s happened. Despite the looming cancer diagnosis, this is not a book about endings or death; it’s about different kinds of love, and essentially, about living.
The Rumpus: How did you come up with the idea/storyline for this book?
Lauren Grodstein: Out of nowhere, in my late thirties, it suddenly seemed like cancer was all around me. My sister-in-law’s mother, who was a good friend to me, died of ovarian cancer—and then my sister-in-law’s sister was diagnosed with it. An acquaintance from college died of breast cancer, leaving behind three small kids. Another woman I knew, a talented poet, died of stomach cancer, also leaving behind little kids. I couldn’t stop thinking about these women; sometimes they’d be the first thing I thought about when I woke up. What must it have been like to let life go? To let their children go?
Eventually all this thinking led its way to a character, Karen Neulander, diagnosed with ovarian cancer but still very much alive—at least for the time being.
But of course, a terminal cancer diagnosis is a situation, not a plot. So then I started thinking about what else might be complicating this woman’s life, and I imagined a reappearing ex, and a disappearing job, and the book sort of took off from there.
Rumpus: The book is structured as a letter of sorts to Jacob. What made you go with this form?
Grodstein: I think I imagined what I would do if this were happening to me—what I would want to say to my own son, and how I would say it. I would probably write him a letter, or a series of letters, or—most likely, since I’m an author—I’d probably write him a book. Although Jacob is not the same kid as my son, they do share certain similarities (a fondness for Nintendo, a keen interest in scoop-your-own-candy establishments). So it was easy for me to imagine a mother trying to address her six-year-old, imagining him in the future, writing for the person he might become.
Rumpus: When I mentioned the last name—Neulander—to you in a message, you replied that you chose the name deliberately. Jacob is, of course, a Biblical name. Did you choose all of the names on purpose? If so, how do you decide?
Grodstein: I think a lot about names, and feel very strongly that naming your characters is one of the most crucial parts of the job. Names can signify everything about a character: age, race, class, aspiration. Karen was born in the early 1970s, when there were a lot of middle-class Jewish Karens being born, and Jake was born in the late 00s, when there were lots of Jewish Jakes being born in New York. As for Neulander, it’s a German-Hungarian name, which aligns with Karen’s heritage. It means “new ground,” or “new land,” which suggests, to me, Karen’s passing from life to death.
Rumpus: You’ve written several books from the male POV. This one, obviously, is not. What sorts of things are different about the two POVs? How does this (if it does) affect the process, etc?
Grodstein: I always liked writing from a male POV because it allowed me to separate myself entirely from the character. If I was writing about, say, a fifty-three year old male physician, I was writing about someone who was very much not me, and therefore I was free to let my imagination go wild. I was afraid, for a long time, that if I wrote a character who shared too many of my demographics, she would end up feeling false, like a sort of stilted version of myself. But Karen came to me fully formed—I knew her, I knew who she was, and I knew that, although she and I have certain things in common, we weren’t the same person. And so she was as easy to write as my male characters were.
Rumpus: Who inspires you?
Grodstein: My son. My husband. My parents. Great readers and writers I know. People doing surprising things—living in tiny houses all their lives and then giving millions to charity upon their deaths. Leaving New York City to move to farm in rural Idaho. Teaching poetry to people in prison and finding remarkable talent. I’m inspired by people who are really deliberate and careful with their lives, and people who are kind. And of course I’m inspired by people who work hard and don’t complain about it. I myself work hard but sometimes, I admit, I do complain.
Rumpus: What are you currently reading/listening to/watching?
Grodstein: I’m reading a wonderful novel by a former student of mine that’s currently out with an agent. It is beyond exciting to see this thing that was once sort of a batshit idea in a classroom become a fully developed, beautiful and page-turning novel. I’m so excited for it to find its readership in the world.
I’ve actually been reading a lot since the presidential election—some nonfiction, to help explain the current insanity that is our American cultural landscape, but also a lot of fiction, to escape. I read The Nix, which was fun and nutty; and A Separation, which was pretty absorbing. And I reread Mrs. Bridge, because I was teaching it and it’s just one of my favorite novels in the world.
I tried watching The Santa Clarita Diet because I aspire to Drew Barrymore’s hairdo, but it was too gory. Oh, and I listen to Pod Save America as soon as a new podcast comes out. It’s a sarcastic take on politics by some chastened Obama bros (they used to call people scared of a Trump presidency “bedwetters”—but who’s soaking now, friends?). It’s amusing and sometimes even reassuring, despite itself.
Rumpus: What advice do you have for writers?
Grodstein: I have so much advice, but I think my best advice is that you should only do it if it makes you happy. Don’t do it because you think you’ll find some sort of gratifying success—I’ve found a bit of success in my career, and I’m very relieved by it, but the success that comes after a book is published is never as happy as the feeling of writing, of knowing you’ve written something good, of feeling like you’ve had a worthwhile day in the chair. That’s the best feeling I know, and as soon as writing stops making me feel that way, I’ll stop doing it.
Rumpus: The current political/social climate is one that we’ve never really been in before. Do you think writers/artists have an obligation to do anything in this regard?
Grodstein: Man, I don’t know. I think about this a lot. Right now my feeling is that writers and artists have the same obligation as anyone else: to use their time, money, and talent to stand up for the America we know. We have a responsibility, all of us, to defend our country against an evil administration. And that means calling lawmakers, protesting, giving money to organizations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the International Rescue Committee, and refusing to acquiesce. Beyond that—I really don’t know. I’m as optimistic as I am scared, however, because never in my life have I seen so many people stand up for our country’s true values: inclusion, openness, and generosity.
Rumpus: What’s up next on the horizon?
Grodstein: We’re adopting a baby! So, you know, diapers. Car seats. Temper tantrums. Adorable baby giggles. I am so excited. It’s been a while, but man I miss the feeling of a soft, squishy, beautiful baby in my arms. After that—I have no idea. Nap time, maybe? Let’s go with nap time.
Author photograph © Ken Yanoviak.