We all have two versions of our life. There’s the way it was “supposed” to happen, and then there’s the way that it actually happens. Laura Munson was supposed to be a novelist, the perfect family at her side. Instead, her debut memoir about finding happiness in a broken marriage, This Is Not The Story You Think It Is, became a New York Times bestseller in 2010. But when the book settled and the marriage ended and the kids left the nest, Laura found herself asking, “So now what?”
Such is the central question driving Laura’s debut novel, Willa’s Grove. The story follows four middle-aged women, each at significant crossroads in their very different lives, who attempt to find that answer by gathering together at their friend’s rural Montana home. The book is almost prophetic in that it was released just days before parts of the country were put on the COVID-19 lockdown. With our fast-paced world largely at a halt, we are all staring down collective and individual crossroads. Who among us isn’t asking, “So now what?”
I was delighted to speak with Laura about publishing her first novel, “bridge communities,” and crafting believable fiction.
The Rumpus: While the big question at the heart of your novel is very timely, you obviously wrote this before the pandemic. How long have you been working on it? What inspired that driving question?
Laura Munson: I’ve been writing this book for eight years. The book that is on the shelf now is draft nineteen. Never did I imagine that the book’s central theme would be so relevant. Before the book tour got canceled, the first thing I asked at events was, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a So Now What crossroads moment in your life.” Of course, everybody raised their hand. Life is full of transition and new chapters and crossroads moments. And then I asked people to call out what some of those crossroads moments might be. The top three topics were: relationships, career, and parenthood.
What strikes me as so interesting is that we sign up for these things. We choose to have children. We choose to marry that person. We choose our job. And even though we sign up for these things, in times of transition, we become ashamed of our choices. Then, we isolate. We say we’re fine in the grocery store—back when we could go to the grocery store—but we’re really bleeding inside. If we were able to gather now, you can bet that every single person in the room would be having a crossroads moment.
Rumpus: I know it’s always been your dream to have a novel published, and now that you finally made that happen, COVID-19 shut it down just as it was getting off the ground. So I have to ask, how are you handling it?
Munson: When I came back from the tour, everybody was pivoting, of course. I was scrambling to get everything settled here in Montana, but I quickly realized that my entire job as a retreat leader requires people coming together in person. So I thought, What can I do? Both to keep my livelihood, and to help. And I hope all of us are asking this question right now: What can I do? What are my skill sets that will help people through this time?
So I thought, why don’t I take some of the themes in this book and turn them into some sort of teaching? Every Friday I’ve been doing a free guided virtual journal writing practice called So Now What Writing. It’s a practice that I’m teaching, so people can come once or they can come every week. That has led to the So Now What Workshop. I do have to monetize that one. I’m a teacher and teachers need to eat, but it’s for a fraction of what I would normally charge. I’m just trying to offer whatever I can, to help where I can help. And I’m thrilled to report that a lot of people are reading Willa’s Grove, so even though I’m not on tour, it’s landing in people’s hearts!
Rumpus: What kind of response have you received from people regarding the book?
Munson: I think people are hungry for this message. I’m getting notes like, “This book feels like home” or “I wouldn’t have related to this six months ago because I didn’t understand isolation since I’m such a part of my community. But now, in true isolation, I understand how much I’ve been hiding and pretending and saying I’m fine when I’m really not.” Willa’s Grove is opening up the possibility for people to hold up the mirror to themselves, look at the reflection, and be honest about how they’re showing up.
Before COVID-19 hit, I had one interviewer ask me if there was too much talking in the book. My response was: “The people who think that there’s too much talking in this book are the exact people who need to be having these conversations.” Now more than ever, people are valuing the power of real conversations so that we can move forward in our lives. I think people are reading this book and saying, “I need an interlude like this in my life,” whereas six months ago they might have said, “I don’t have time to do it.” Now, people have the time and are realizing that they had the time before, but they just didn’t value it. Nobody is saying that there’s too much conversation in the book. Instead, they’re saying, “It’s so nice to be in a farmhouse in Montana, having conversations with these women. Right now, I wish I could be in a room full of women sipping tea or having a glass of wine and talking.”
Rumpus: It’s amazing how in a matter of months, the collective conversation can become so different.
Munson: I just hope that we have some true change that comes out of this. I think this is the first opportunity we’ve had in a long time to make meaningful change that affects everyone as opposed to like, change in little micro communities. I am the daughter of Depression-era children. And [the granddaughter of] grandparents who were smack in the middle of the 1918 flu epidemic. They learned their lessons. I hope we do, too. I deeply hope we have a memory longer than that of a goldfish… And that we can value what I’m calling “bridge community,” whether in person or remotely.
Rumpus: Talk to me about these “bridge communities.” Why are they so important?
Munson: To me, a “bridge community” is a temporary community of people coming together, away from their daily lives and the people in it. This gives them space to create or heal in a way that’s not the same as running into a friend in the grocery store or in the carpool line or in front of people you know who might judge you in a personal way.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t rely on our family and friends when we’re going through hard times. That’s something I want to be really clear about. But the reason why I was inspired to write this book was because of the Haven Writing Retreats that I’ve been leading for the last eight years. There are over one thousand Haven alums from all over the world and many demographics, and over and over and over again I’ve watched as these groups of strangers bond. These are people who would never meet in their normal lives, and every single time, I watch these groups interact like it’s the best family reunion they’ve never been on. Each group says to me, “We’re your best group, right?” Like it could never be this way again. But it is. Over and over and over and over again.
What I have found leading Haven, is this: the people who are different from you or who you would never meet in your normal life actually have the most to teach you. In telling each other our stories, which are all so different, we find the relatability in our stories. I wrote Willa’s Grove because I wanted to capture this phenomenon. I want people to understand what happens when we deeply connect with others for the express purpose of moving forward in our lives. In a bridge community, we connect with kindreds in a safe setting, connect with ourselves in a profound way, so that we can connect with our daily lives and the people in it.
Rumpus: Can you walk us through your process of channeling this idea into a work of publishable fiction?
Munson: I was sitting in bed one morning, thinking, “How can I create this feeling of connection and personal growth in a novel?” Because fiction is my true love. I could have written a how-to book, and in fact, the first version of the book was very prescriptive. After I finished it, I read it and I thought, “I need to take a shower. This isn’t a novel.” So I ripped that up, started all over again, and let the characters tell the story. And that’s when the book became real. Any novelist will tell you that the characters write the story.
Rumpus: How do you go about moving the plot along while creating tension and drama when so much of the book takes place in conversation?
Munson: I believe that what we’re all really looking for is truth. To me fiction is distilled reality. It’s truer than true. But whether you’re writing sci-fi or poetry or a cookbook or a memoir or a novel, what we need to do is welcome the conflict. Life is made up of conflict, and without conflict, there’s no resolve. When we resist the conflict or try to tie it all up in a pink bow, we miss the chance to actually go deeper into the conflict to let it be our teacher.
So I try to teach people to find the heart of conflict. And so like I said, when I wrote the first draft, I wasn’t willing to go into each of the character’s own conflicts because I had this sort of prescriptive agenda. So each of the characters showed up, like, with their yoga mats. And each of them had a lesson in mind, body, or spirit. It was really quite disgusting, actually. But you’ve got to get out that first draft. So, I took my own advice and found the courage to go deeply into the heart of conflict and let that be my guide. And once I did that, like I said, the characters wrote the book.
Rumpus: I write nonfiction, so the idea of creating a believable character out of the air is a mystery to me. How do you go about crafting an authentic character?
Munson: The way to do that is to let the characters not only tell the story, but let their conflict move the story forward. So for instance, in Willa’s Grove, all the characters have relatable central conflicts. But they’re conflicts that we often don’t talk about in our society. Jane’s central conflict, whether she knows it or not, is that money doesn’t bring you happiness. It brings you choices and it brings you comfort, but it doesn’t bring you happiness. Bliss’s central conflict is faith vs. religion. I think that’s a really big one, and one that we don’t talk about a lot. Harriet’s central conflict is addiction to ambition. And then Willa, our protagonist, her central conflict is self-reliance vs. interdependence. It’s not like these women are really aware of their conflicts, but in telling their stories to one another in the way that they do, they’re able to identify what’s been in their way and how to find their resolve. And I think that’s why the narrative drive in the book moves forward in the way that it does. A lot of people tell me that they read it once to find out what happens, and then again to savor the women and their interactions.
Rumpus: Can you talk a bit about Montana as a character in the book?
Munson: Well, Montana is a character in the book for sure. I’m originally from Chicago, but I’ve lived in northwestern Montana for thirty years, raised children here, learned most of my life lessons here. And so Montana teaches these characters, too. One of my favorite lines in the book is at the end when the Jane character, the one who’s so not into her suburban Connecticut life and misses her New York City life, says, “I love who I’ve been here [in Montana]. I just don’t know if I can bring that back home. I love who I’ve been in nature.” And Willa says, “But Jane, you are nature.” And that’s something I want people to get from this book. It’s not that you go out in nature. You are nature. You are nature-sitting in isolation during lockdown in your apartment building. You are nature.
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned before that you have several novels that are clean and publishable. Why was Willa’s Grove the one you chose to focus on?
Munson: I do have five to eight novels that are ready to go. I wanted to establish myself as a novelist after becoming a New York Times bestselling author for my memoir, This Is Not The Story You Think It Is, which was the long version of my Modern Love essay that went so incredibly viral. I wanted what followed the memoir to really establish me as a fiction writer, and the novel that made most sense grew from the way I’ve been living my life for the last eight years, leading my Haven writing programs.
It’s interesting to me that while my memoir and my novel are very different books, both of them focus hard on how our thought patterns serve us and sabotage us, and where we’re in our own way. How by authentic communication with ourselves and others, we can move forward in our lives and shed old patterns. So this book made sense not only just for the book itself, but also for my brand and how I show up in the world. That said… I have every intention of getting those other books published.
Rumpus: You’ve been sitting with the “So Now What?” question for eight years, which makes you an accidental expert on how to answer it. So, how do we answer it?
Munson: I think that the number one thing that we have to be open to is the power and possibility of conversation. I do think you have to be discerning about who you share with, but there’s a big difference between saying “I’m fine” to an acquaintance in the produce aisle and always saying you’re fine when you’re not. Just because life happens, doesn’t mean that we have to have this steely reserve or be braced against it. Many of us get locked into these thought patterns that just go on repeat. But in order to move forward in our lives, and this is what my memoir is about, we have to isolate those patterns and become aware of them so that we can ask ourselves, do these thought patterns serve us? And if the answer is yes, good. Let’s keep those thought patterns. But if the answer is no, then let’s shed them. And I think that when we have the conversations in a safe setting, in the way the women of Willa’s Grove do, it helps us to become aware of our thought patterns. And the stories that we let run our lives, that are so often not even true.
Photograph of Laura Munson by Amy Boring.