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American Utopia


March 15, 2013

The bestselling novelist talks about the art of optimism, gender bias in the literary world, and donning public personas.

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Image by Lucy Schaeffer

Lauren Groff’s Arcadia is set in the fields and forests of western New York State. It’s the late 1960s, and a group of idealists decide to found a commune on the grounds of a crumbling mansion called Arcadia House. The narrative follows a quiet boy called Bit as he gets swept up in this bold utopian dream, his story coming to life in vignettes that take the reader hopping into the year 2018. The book’s episodic structure allows seemingly major moments to be confined to the shadows while everyday details are held up to the light: “the tarps over the rotted roof,” a mouse “pray[ing] into its pink hands,” pigeons “heaped on the roofline, buttoning house to sky.”

My copy of Arcadia bears a blurb from Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo, who says “it’s not possible to write any better without showing off.” But the truth is that Lauren Groff does show off. She shows off in the same way that John Updike shows off in his Rabbit novels, or Carol Shields shows off in The Stone Diaries. There’s an unashamed optimism in her writing, a sparky alertness to the way the world works, and it’s with a nod of recognition that the reader eavesdrops on Bit’s thoughts about the commune in which he grew up: “He feels, with a gathering of wonder, how this is exactly what makes Arcadia great: this attention to potential, this patience for the individual, the necessary space for the expansion of the soul.” If novel-writing is its own form of Utopian enterprise, Arcadia is a novel unembarrassed by the beauty and ambition of its plan.

Groff spoke to me via Skype from her home in Gainesville, Florida, where she lives with her husband and two sons. She’d recently been named a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize for fiction. By chance we spoke on the day the VIDA Count had been released, an annual report on the representation of women in mainstream literary coverage, and as well as exploring the failed ideals of the dreamers in her novel, she spoke frankly about gender inequalities in the literary world. Other subjects included her depression during pregnancy, and three novels which remain unpublished.

Jonathan Lee for Guernica

Guernica: What was it about utopias that excited you as a writer?

Lauren Groff: I started writing Arcadia in 2007, when I was vastly pregnant. I’m an anxious person in general, but something about being pregnant and awaiting the release of my first book, The Monsters Of Templeton, made me into an insane anxious person. I didn’t sleep at night. I ended up sleeping all day. In a strange way I felt like the world was going to end. I found myself so deeply depressed at times that I started to read about happiness, and that took me into books about idealism and utopianism. Reading books about people who tried to build utopian societies of different kinds gave me a kind of lift. Often these weren’t happy people, but they were people who were trying very hard to be happy, or to create a world in which they could be happy. Reading about these people, and eventually creating characters with their own utopian ambitions, was the way I learned to live with being a pregnant person, to stave off the sense of incipient disaster. You’re bringing a person into this overcrowded world, knowing they’re one day going to die and there’s nothing you can do about it. Parenthood means becoming comfortable with the fact that there are things outside your control, things that end and fail, just as most utopias end and by some measure fail. And just because they’re a failure doesn’t mean there isn’t value there.

Guernica: Arcadia is dedicated to Beckett…

Lauren Groff: That’s my son, the one I was pregnant with as I began writing the book. For me he’s indistinguishable from Bit, the central character. He is the central character. I was imagining him into the world.

Guernica: Is he named after Samuel Beckett? Fail again, fail better?

Lauren Groff: He’s actually named after Beck, the musician. We heard Beck on the radio and thought that was a good nickname for a child. We named our son Beckett so we could call him Beck—we reverse engineered. And then after he was born and I saw the name on the birth certificate I realized Beckett was a really pretentious name, way too literary. Luckily he’s grown into it. We nearly named my second son Dashiell. Can you imagine? Beckett and Dashiell. It would have been a disaster of pretentiousness.

America is a kind of utopia, or was founded as one… The trouble is that America’s become a utopia accessible only to some people.

Guernica: Is the community described in your book one drawn from personal experience?

Lauren Groff: Only in so far as I went to stay in a guest house which used to be a commune for Oneida in upstate New York, and spoke to people there, as research. I also went to a place in Tennessee called the Farm, an intentional community founded in 1971 by Stephen Gaskin.

Guernica: Can you tell us a bit about your time on the Farm?

Lauren Groff: It’s an agrarian community of people deeply invested in social change. A lot of changes occurred there in the 80s and lots of the original families have left, but I believe there’s still around 175 people there now. They have a school there, and about sixteen students go to the school. I stayed with them for about a week, and it’s a stunning environment. I felt at home there: the land is owned communally, still, and decisions are made by the community as a whole. Everyone has his or her place and is important. The Farm was the rough basis for the Arcadia of my novel’s title. But I feel like the idea of utopias in America goes beyond these specific communities. America is a kind of utopia, or was founded as one. The first pilgrims came to America to create a better world than the one that they knew. Manifest Destiny was pushing all the way into California with the idea of creating a better world. The trouble is that America’s become a utopia accessible only to some people. Others get trampled on. Perhaps it’s a problem of size. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist, once gave the ideal number of a given community as 148. That seems about right to me. There’s something idealistic about that—in a group of 148 people you can get to know everybody.

“Sex makes things strained… There are creepy aspects of a lot of intentional communities when it comes to sex.”

Guernica: It’s not a huge gene pool.

Lauren Groff: No. And sex makes things strained. There are lovely people in Oneida, but everyone was married to everyone else. And you had fathers and mothers watching their twelve-year-old daughters being inducted into the group marriage by sixty-five-year-old men. There are creepy aspects of a lot of intentional communities when it comes to sex.

Guernica: Arcadia buzzes with the idea that failure can be a noble enterprise, and when the community begins to fall apart it’s described as “a book with the pages torn out.” Was there a sense in which, as well as expressing thoughts about your unborn child, you were reflecting on your own struggle to write a book you were happy with? Or am I just sounding like a bad psychoanalyst?

Lauren Groff: I think attempting to make art is a utopian process in itself, definitely. Nothing I do is ever equal to the ideas in my head. You do the best you can, you do it with patience and love, and then you give up. The moment you give up is when you know the book is done. And I guess what’s coming across in this interview is that I’m kind of a control freak. But there are others like me. I’m about to head off to the AWP Conference in Boston [organized by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs]. Let me tell you: that’s eleven thousand control freaks in a small conference center. Nightmare.

Guernica: Something reviewers frequently find in your work is an exploration of notions of legitimacy and status. Can you tell us a little a bit about how you came to be a writer, in connection with that? Do you feel, at this point in your career, like a legitimate writer, a writer with a capital “W”?

Lauren Groff: The idea of legitimacy is something I suppose I deal with in my fiction, and in part it’s probably a response to my upbringing. When I was growing up I was the middle child, pathologically shy, in a family with a very loud and opinionated older brother, and I felt as if I never had the right to speak. As a result, I simply didn’t speak very much. Like Bit, in a way, I kept a lot of my thoughts inside myself. So, perhaps more than is normal, I’m always questioning my role as a writer. I’m always stopping and asking myself: Do I have the right to tell this story? Is it a story that deserves to be heard? And as for whether I think of myself as a Writer with a capital “W,” I very much hope I never do. When I meet people I try to make a joke out of my occupation, explaining that what I do all day is sit alone in a darkened room, flicking through some pages, jumping on a treadmill now and then. I keep my serious work as a writer private, but that doesn’t mean it’s not serious work—quite the opposite. I’m in a room every single day trying for at least four hours to improve a given draft of a given book. I don’t let anything disturb me. Even the presence of my kids cannot, during those writing hours, disturb me. Unless there’s a bone sticking out of their arm, I’m not interested.

Guernica: And even then, if it’s a small bone…

Lauren Groff: Exactly. I’m a private person, a shy person. Sometimes, reading for eleven hours straight feels to me like the perfect way to spend a day.

Guernica: And being a writer? That’s your perfect life?

Lauren Groff: I feel lucky. I do love it, mostly. At college I had it in my heart that I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t want to tell anyone about it. Then I graduated and became a bartender in Philadelphia, writing during the day. I was the worst bartender in the world. I’m numerically deficient and have this voice that doesn’t carry well in big rooms. After that I had a series of other terrible jobs, whatever would allow me to write for four hours during the day. During that time I wrote three novels—all of which were extraordinarily poor. I decided after that to go and get my MFA.

Guernica: Those three novels remain unpublished?

Lauren Groff: Yes. One of them was better than the other two. I paid an editor some money—for me, at that time, a ton of money—to look over it. She eviscerated it. It was terrifying. I just couldn’t look at it again after that. I was so sad for six months. I couldn’t do anything, really. Some ideas from the other two have reappeared as short stories, which is probably what they were destined to be all along, and I’m sure I had to write them, that I learned from them. I’ve always relied on producing more material than I need. With each of my published novels I’ve written around four times the amount of material that’s ended up in the book.

Guernica: You mean you’ve written drafts of novels which are 250,000 words long?

Lauren Groff: No. It’s more like I write multiple first drafts, handwritten. So with my first novel, I wrote whole drafts from different points of view. There are different versions of that novel in a drawer on loose-leaf sheets. There’s a version in which Marmaduke is the novel’s sole narrator. Often I won’t end up using anything at all from a first draft. I won’t even look at the first draft while I’m writing the second, and I won’t look at the second before writing the third.

Guernica: You don’t read the early drafts you write? Not at all?

Lauren Groff: I’m a physical learner. I learn from writing them, not reading them. When I write a new draft, I don’t like to feel I’m tied to any previous version. That’s why I don’t use a computer to write. The text looks, on the screen, too much like a book. It’s not a book—it’s a bad first draft of something that could one day be a book. Our human impulse is to control everything, but fiction seems to me to be about allowing an element of mystery into the text. Even if I tried to look back at my drafts, I’d squint at my handwriting and certain words would be lost. I’d have to guess at what I meant. Writing by hand is a way of letting mystery into my writing. But I’m constantly trying to figure out how to do this job. It’s a work in progress.

Guernica: Who’s helped you along the way? Lorrie Moore is a mentor of yours?

Lauren Groff: She was my thesis advisor at grad school. She’s lovely. I’m a fan of hers. I’m a fan of a lot of other writers, too. Marilynne Robinson. Anne Carson. Zadie Smith is always pushing at the boundaries of what she can do, and I admire that. I’m reading a lot of Thomas Mann at the moment.

Guernica: Because I’m a bad person, I always want to know which books a writer doesn’t like.

Lauren Groff: I don’t want to name names, it’s a small world. But I feel like in American fiction we’re moving out of a period of intense irony, and I’m very glad about that. I feel like irony is fine for its own sake but shouldn’t be the sole reason to write a book. It has been an ironic world view: that’s the best way I can describe it. I’m a fan of earnestness. I feel like there’s a new wave of earnestness and I’d be happy if I’m some small part of that. Also, I don’t believe that fiction is dead. I know there are some people who believe that it’s an outdated art form, and that to express truth today you need to work in different forms, to write books where it’s perhaps not clear what’s fiction and what’s memoir. I have nothing against those books and love many of them very much. But we have enough space for everyone, traditional realists and hybrid writers, and experimental writers all.

Guernica: In an interview with The Rumpus you described your short story collection Delicate Edible Birds as a “fiercely feminist” book, but at that point the interview went off in a slightly different direction. What did you mean by that? Do you think of yourself as a fiercely feminist writer?

If you’re a writer who happens to be a woman, you’ll get a book cover that depicts a woman with no head, or a woman turning away, or a pair of high heels. You have to fight to not get stuck with these covers.

Lauren Groff: I’m feminist in that I believe that there should be equality between men and women. I get deeply frustrated on a daily basis by the enormous gender divide in the U.S. literary world. But I don’t know how to deal with it, so I don’t tend to say much about it.

Guernica: You don’t want to talk about it?

Lauren Groff: Well it’s on my mind today, as it happens. You’ve caught me on the day when the VIDA Count has come out. Have you seen it? It suggests that the gender inequality in book reviewing isn’t getting better. Male authors get the majority of review coverage, and male reviewers do most of the reviewing. It’s kind of devastating. With the exception of Tin House, women seem to make up no more than one third of the literary landscape anywhere. The results are so depressing.

Guernica: Do you feel the gender bias extends to the major publishing houses?

Lauren Groff: It’s a difficult question, and I’d need to go away for six months and come back to have a proper answer. But I can say that if you’re a writer who happens to be a woman, you’ll get a book cover that depicts a woman with no head, or a woman turning away, or a pair of high heels. You have to fight to not get stuck with these covers. In the U.S. women are chick-lit writers unless they prove otherwise, and that’s frustrating. I want to be identified as a writer, not a Southern writer, not a woman writer, not a woman from this or that place, but unfortunately it doesn’t always happen. Arcadia has a male character at its center. I didn’t write a book with a male character to get more attention, but a female writer does definitely get more attention if she writes about male characters. It’s true. It’s considered somehow more literary, in the same way that it’s more literary to write about supposedly male subjects, such as war. You’re considered more seriously by the literary establishment.

Guernica: Your first novel was shortlisted for the Orange New Writers Prize, as it used to be called. A UK literary prize which rewards excellence in novels by women. Is it helpful, to have a prize open only to women? Is it necessary to redress an imbalance, or is it possible that—for all its work in bringing good books to our attention—it reinforces the gender divide?

Lauren Groff: I’m ambivalent about the Orange Prize. I was really proud to be shortlisted alongside the other writers, whom I admire. That said, I don’t know if it’s best way of addressing gender inequality problems. It doesn’t necessarily open up the discussion, you know? There’s a risk of sequestering books, putting them into categories—this one’s by a man, this one is women’s fiction. Of course, at the moment I don’t have a better idea about how to fix things…

Guernica: I’m interested by the depictions in Arcadia of how dreamers and optimists in small communities interact with the outside world. Do you feel a responsibility as a writer to engage, in your subject matter, with the America you see around you? Is writing for you a kind of political statement, however veiled?

Lauren Groff: I think the role of any writer is to comment on society. But it can be done in different ways. Ben Fountain’s wonderful novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a very overt commentary on modern day America. But you don’t have to be overt. Even historical fiction can hold a mirror to the society you’re living in. Look at Hilary Mantel: she’s talking about the present as much as the past. A writer doesn’t always need to be loud in their methods. But it can be a great thing to make people feel angry, and I’m not sure literature in America does that much any more.

“I want to write rather than perform. I’m looking forward to disappearing for a while.”

Guernica: Do you find the public side of being a writer difficult? The book readings and the social side?

Lauren Groff: It can be mortifying for me. You adopt a persona that’s not really you. I like people, I really do. I like meeting people. But most of the time I would rather be at home reading a book than reading in a bookstore. It’s a performance, and it ends up being all right, and then you have a nice shot of bourbon afterwards, and it’s all good. I want to please people. I want to be nice. I want to be liked. As a result I say yes to everything. But it takes a lot of vital energy out of me. I’ve been traveling around promoting my book for a year and a half, and I’m just so tired. I feel very lucky but very tired, and when you’re tired you tend to re-imagine what your role in life really should be. I’m a writer, not an actor. I want to write rather than perform. I’m looking forward to disappearing for a while.

Guernica: You’re on Twitter, right?

Lauren Groff: Yes. I do like Twitter. Writing is a solitary pursuit, and it can get lonely. I like to go into Twitter for a short period of time, communicate with clever friends, and then switch it off. That’s perfect for me.

Guernica: Martin Amis said in a recent Guernica interview that what excites him as a writer is stupidity. He sees stupidity in the world, and he writes about it. One of your subject seems to be loneliness, but there’s an optimism there, too.

Lauren Groff: I think I’m an optimistic person. Ultimately I believe in people. I believe they can be robust. When my collection Delicate Edible Birds came out there were one or two people who read the title as being a commentary on the characters within the pages, the women in the book, meaning that they were these fragile girls meant for male consumption. But I had meant the opposite—these people are tough. Dark things happen to them but they get on with life as best they can.

G

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3 comments for American Utopia

  1. Comment by Johanna van Zanten on March 15, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    Hi, good interview. I think once the societal roles are more evenly taken on by both men and women, in the board rooms and administrations of publishing houses, media businesses, magazines and governments of nations, will we be at par as women–example: look at the pope they elected to lead a billion plus Catholics, and that is one of the more tolerant religions in the world.

    Johanna

  2. Comment by Jeffrey Sykes on March 16, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    Excellent interview. My first exposure to her. Her ideas are very intriguing and I hope to read her work soon.

  3. Comment by writemypapers on May 26, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    I know I’m late to the party here. I think if the back cover copy doesn’t accurately depict the novel, that’s the fault of the publishing house staffer who wrote the copy, not the author. It’s unfortunate that it may have hampered the reading experience, but it’s not a valid critique of the novel itself. I do like the title because the entire novel is Bit’s quest to find Arcadia/utopia. The question is whether he finds it and what really constitutes “perfection.” (I think.)

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