Subterranean Conversation: An Interview with Lauren Groff

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Lauren Groff is a two-time National Book Award finalist and The New York Times–bestselling author of three novels, The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia, and Fates and Furies, and the celebrated short story collections Delicate Edible Birds and Florida. She has won The Story Prize and the PEN/O. Henry Award and been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work regularly appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and elsewhere, and she was named one of Granta’s 2017 Best Young American Novelists. She lives in Gainesville, Florida, with her husband and sons. You can read a craft lecture by Groff in MQR’s Summer 2021 issue

Polly Rosenwaike (PR): I saw an event you did with Laura van den Berg for her new book of short stories, and somebody asked you about how to put a short story collection together, how to think about the arc of a collection. You said that you feel the first story should pose a question that gets revised throughout the book. I love this construct. Can you elaborate on it and talk about how this idea of an evolving thread of questions helped you develop Florida?

Lauren Groff (LG): I came to writing through poetry; I loved writing formal poetry because it unlocked ideas that I don’t think I would have had if I had the freedom to do anything I wanted to do on the page. Paying attention to architecture makes a lot of sense to me. I think a good story collection should have a fundamental, if somewhat buried, architecture.

In terms of building out a short story collection, to create a sense of this buried structure, the writer has to ask their stories multiple questions on multiple levels, some explored more intimately than others. I do think that, out of the ideas or worries or anxiety or images in the first story of a collection, a writer tries to create a pattern in the book, to pose a question that will recur in the next story in perhaps a twisted or modified way. I like to build a collection like this so that the last story takes all of these layers of ideas, questions, images, patterns, which have been developing through the collection as a whole, and then does something unexpected with it. The last story is as important as the first because it explodes everything and turns some of the questions around, back to the beginning or back to the middle.

When I read Laura’s manuscript, I spent some time asking her stories what their secret patterns were. I have so much fun playing with order—I think it’s the most joyous time in writing or thinking about a story collection because you’ve finished the stories, and now you’re just trying to find a way to have a subterranean conversation. A really good reader would possibly pick up on the structure of the collection as a whole, but often they don’t need to see it to feel the sturdiness and strength of the architecture. I’m not going to be specific about how this works in my book, though, because I don’t believe that it’s up to the writer to impose their ideas about their books upon the reader.

PR: Did you write the last story, “Yport,” last?

LG: I did write that one last, not necessarily because of the order of the collection, but because it was the most difficult story to write. I had been trying to write a story about Guy de Maupassant for about a decade, first a novel about him, then a story about the writing of a novel about him that failed. When I was putting this collection together, I was obsessed with certain things, as writers are, returning to them over and over again. I made my way to the end, and I thought, oh, aha, what I’d been struggling with and trying to write could actually speak backward to a lot of stories in the collection.

PR: I love the idea of digging up a story you’d been trying to write and couldn’t figure out how to do it. In “Yport,” the central character is in France to work on a project she’s long been struggling with about Guy de Maupassant. Finally, she acknowledges that she now hates this classic writer whose work is “filled with white male arrogance and anti-Semitism and misogyny and flat-out celebrations of rape.” Is de Maupassant a writer you loved before coming to terms with these disturbing qualities of the man and his work? Did you want this character’s realizations to speak to a larger reckoning with canonical artists whose lives and works have come under contemporary scrutiny?  

LG: Yes, yes to both. I spent a year after high school in France on a Rotary Youth exchange, which was the greatest experience an incredibly shy and bookish girl from a tiny village could have. It was also the worst experience of my life in some ways, possibly because I was so shy and bookish. I was seventeen, but I was put in a class with fourteen-year-olds, which was difficult, and I had thought that I knew French, but when I arrived in France, it was obvious I didn’t. My first host family was a disaster, which is better not discussed. My second family were caterers, which was amazing—and I love them still; they came to my wedding—but there was so much food and drink in their house that I gained fifty pounds. I felt very alienated and very sad, and the way that I deal with sadness is through reading, so I would go to these bookstores that sold canonical works for five francs, about one dollar at a time. I would skip school and take my cheap books down to the Japanese gardens. The first book that I felt some mastery in French while reading was a Guy de Maupassant collection. It was a magnificent book, and I felt at the time that he saved my life. 

Later, between projects, I thought maybe I’d do a translation for myself of his short stories. I started reading all of them. There are so many, over three hundred. He would publish a short story a week in the newspapers at the time. To do that, you have to write fast and not really care about what you’re putting out. If you read his stories in sequence, you can begin to see the ravages of tertiary syphilis on his work and on his morality. He started to lose his basic human decency. The way that he talked about women, in particular, was so offensive that it soured me on him. I started trying to write a historical novel about Guy de Maupassant, and it was so bad. I don’t think I ever even gave it to my husband, my first reader, who reads everything.

I was fascinated in Florida with the idea of what masculinity means, what femininity means, what being a feminist raising two little boys means. How do you raise good men; how do you take from the writers of the past who had these offensive ideas about the world? There were a lot of questions sizzling in me as I was writing the stories in the book.

PR: Going back to the first story in the collection, “Ghosts and Empties,” I read it when it first came out in The New Yorker in 2015, and I’ve kept it in mind since then because I feel like you accomplish something in this story that I’ve always wanted to do. With the utmost admiration, I will say that it doesn’t quite have a plot, doesn’t have the dramatic arc that we usually see in short fiction. The story details a woman’s nighttime walks in her neighborhood over a period of time, and it is full of fantastic imagery and emotional resonance. While so much is going on in the woman’s head and we get so many vivid observations about the neighborhood, nothing quite happens in terms of the present action. Do you see this as a story without a central plot, or does it have one to your mind?

LG: I’ve been trying to think about new ways of writing that have nothing to do with standard plotting, moving beyond things like Freytag’s Pyramid and a three-act structure. In this story, I was thinking about submerged plot, because there is a sort of plot in the story, but it’s not necessarily on the surface. There’s something weird happening between the protagonist and her husband, something strange happening in the neighborhood itself. The seasons are changing, and there’s a sort of temporal arc there, as well. But the story is highly dependent on both observation and a driving rhythm in the prose.

When I was thinking about “Ghosts and Empties,” I was taking incredibly lengthy walks at night, and I started thinking about how the physical rhythm I fell into corresponded to a sort of parataxis: and then and then and then and then. I had an underlying rhythm, and I had these images that come back and come back and come back, night after night, walk after walk, though they are slowly being modified over time. I don’t know if I could have sustained this rhythm over the course of a novel. It needed to be a piece of short fiction. In any event, the form for the story, when I finally found it, came out of the rhythm of walking.

PR: How much did those walks directly inform the images that came into play? Would you take notes when you came back home?

LG: My rule for that story was that if I couldn’t remember an image the next day, then it didn’t matter. I was building an internal subconscious repository where I would keep these images. They were sort of bouncing into each other, being swallowed up by each other, coming to light as important in juxtaposition. In times of anxiety and insomnia, I have a very hard time with my memory, it becomes extremely porous, so it took a while to build up enough images that felt strong enough to be alive in the world of the short story.

PR: The images are wonderful, and the skeleton plot of the troubled marriage feels like a great lesson in how the hint of personal conflict creates just enough of a chronology for the story. 

LG: Without someone like W.G. Sebald or Rachel Cusk, I never would have thought of that kind of structure where there’s not a lot of direct plot, but there’s still an intimated plot. 

PR: Are there other short story writers in particular who you think do that well?

LG: The first one who comes to mind is Grace Paley. I feel like she realized so much with voice that plot fades into shadow behind her. Lydia Davis has this incredible story called “The Center of the Story” written in an almost musical form. Not a lot happens, but images recur: an image of a red book, an image of a hurricane coming, an image of a train. You start to see, through the structure, that though she is never actually talking directly about God, it’s very much a story about God in the shape of a hurricane, which has a place of absolute stillness at its center. I think Davis’s entire body of work creates a plotless text that is not a novel, but it’s also not not a novel. Her whole oeuvre can be read together as an inquiry on the self, essayistic and fascinating. You could play a game with it, like the one where you open the Bible and pick out a passage and try to think about how the passage reflects your current predicament back to you. I think people used to do this with Virgil and the Aeneid.  When you read Lydia Davis like this, you begin to see points of light coming out of the work in unusual sideways ways. You know, I’m a reader before I’m a writer; being a reader is my deepest identity. Ninety-eight percent of my joy in this life is just getting to spend time inside the brains of someone like Lydia Davis or Grace Paley, or W.G. Sebald. 

PR: One more question about “Ghosts and Empties.” It starts with this great image: “I have somehow become a woman who yells, and because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.”

The portrayal of motherhood in many of the stories is so wonderfully precise, such a nuanced representation of the near-simultaneous feelings of tenderness and frustration that I know I’ve experienced as a mother. Did it feel important to you to begin the book with these images of a fraught mother and a gentle, competent father that push against dominant cultural images and representations of mothers and fathers? 

LG: Yes, I began the book with this story, which has this first line, because that is one of the central obsessions of this book; but also because I just assume that if someone picked this book up, read that first line, and hated it, they’ll just put the book down and walk away and read something that they like more. It may not be obvious in one-to-one conversation because we’re, you know, polite and genial, but I’m full of rage about the way that we are supposed to be mothers and artists and creative people in the world. It’s a space of unbelievable ambivalence and anxiety and fury for me, to be perfectly honest. We have to write out of these dark places, or else we’re not paying attention to what’s most urgent in us. 

Among the many obsessions of the book is the question of how to raise good children in this world, how to constantly resist and set one’s own body in opposition to the incredibly harmful depictions of masculinity and femininity that we are required to swallow at times. It’s all exhausting, particularly at this moment at the end of 2020, after so many women have fallen out of the workforce because of the pandemic and economic anxiety and social norms placing the heaviest burdens on women while also subverting their autonomy and power.

Perhaps there’s some generational anger here, too. When I think of my mother, I wonder if her earnest swallowing of societal roles is the central tragedy of her life. She would never say any of this herself—this is me imposing these ideas on her, which is unfair—but I don’t know how we can become a progressive country with the way that we treat women and how so many become complicit, out of exhaustion, with their own relegation to secondary status. I just read two incredible books in one night of horrible insomnia that speak to the idea of creation and motherhood and the imposition of roles: Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty and Celia Paul’s Self-Portrait. Paul’s memoir is possibly my favorite book of 2020. She’s a painter who was in a relationship with Lucien Freud, and her whole life sort of spun out of that early entanglement. She’s devoted herself to being an artist and is also a mother, and her writing is mind-blowingly good.

PR: Some reviewers of Florida describe the mother with two sons who appears throughout various stories as a recurring character, and I wonder if you saw her that way, if you wanted that group of stories to have its own arc within the collection.

LG: I’m ambivalent about this question because I feel as though that is an external imposition of autobiography upon the book; at the same time, I did intentionally put those stories into the book in the order that I put them in to create a sort of structure, so the answer is both yes and no. You can never really dictate what a critic is going to say about your work. It’s always incredibly fraught to put things relatively close to your experience in and have people read them as autobiographical. After “Ghosts and Empties” was published, a woman in my neighborhood became terrified at how I was looking in people’s windows, which both horrifies and secretly pleases me.

PR: You wrote a wonderful introduction to Lorrie Moore’s Collected Stories. You said, “Writers are solitary beasts, but not one of us has ever entered a life of writing alone, and most of us can identify the voice that guided us through the blind and treacherous tunnels that we must enter when we go from being a reader to being a writer. Lorrie Moore was this for me.”

She was that for me too. You mention going to the University of Wisconsin for your MFA, where Moore was teaching then, and feeling ashamed to submit something for workshop that was a kind of imitation of her style. So you “swiftly began to write in a different mode that, after some pain, became my own.” Would you say you still write in that mode you started to develop when you decided you shouldn’t try to be the next Lorrie Moore?

LG: This question is really two questions, I think. One is about what it means to meet one of your literary heroes in the flesh and know them as a teacher and a person. The other is about what it means to come into your own style and whether you can even say that you have a style when your style is constantly evolving. As for the meeting your idol thing, I got very lucky that my idol was Lorrie. I could have met any number of idols and been profoundly disappointed by them because if the writer is good, the human is never as good as the writing. Your heroes will likely disappoint you. But Lorrie is exactly like her writing, and she’s gracious and kind, but there was also a certain reserve and sternness to her. I was raised to be a person who tried to please people; I knew that writing a pastiche of Lorrie Moore would not please her. I would get her very grave workshop face and be embarrassed for the rest of my life.

It was good to shock myself out of a way of writing that wasn’t necessarily native to me. But then I thought she didn’t actually like my work in workshop, which made me constantly quest afterwards to find something that she might have liked better. I don’t know that I’m working in the same mode I was then. I think that I write differently depending on the project at hand, at least I hope so, because I’m constantly changing and becoming a different person. I would love to never write the same book twice, even accidentally. So I think the mode of writing that I was looking for was just a questing one, as opposed to the settled one. I was always looking for a way to express the story that was deepest in me, using the tools that I could manage to master.

PR: You did an interview for the New York Times Book Review’s “By the Book” feature. When asked, “What moves you most in a work of literature?” you said, “In all genres, I wait in ambush for the exact, perfect, telling detail, the thing that makes the scene or line come alive.” Your work is full of those perfect, telling details. Do you have any suggestions for how to try to teach someone to create those kinds of details? I think it’s one of the most essential things, and yet it seems, in a way, one of the most difficult things to teach somebody else how to do.

LG: Well, I didn’t have a formulated way of doing this until I saw Charles Baxter, whom I absolutely adore, give this talk, and he was talking about how if you looked at a pencil for long enough, it would become an alien object. If you’re just paying attention closely enough, describing a thing in your mind enough, you’re going to create something new out of something that you’ve seen a million times in your life and have really strong associations with. I think that this is correct, that the telling detail emerges out of the quality of your attention. If a paragraph doesn’t feel quite specific enough, the writer just needs time to sit with that paragraph, push really hard against every element in that paragraph, and eventually come up with a moment that is the exact right moment. 

Right now, I’m reading Joy Williams again, The Changeling. It is so full of genius; I don’t know how it was ever published. Anatole Broyard slammed it in The New York Times Book Review, and I don’t agree with his assessment at all, but I can understand where it’s coming from because The Changeling is a book written by an alien. These glimmering moments in every line—every line is perfect, or strange, or a mix of things that lets you see the world in a strange light. I mean, yes, Joy Williams is a genius, but also, I think she just spends a long time looking at sentences and then making them weird or undermining something within the sentence themselves. I think specificity arises out of attention and time, and that this is great because everyone can work on improving their attention and ability to sit with an image or sentence over time. It’s a way of refining one’s art that feels very democratic.

PR: Some of your most devastating and inventive stories feature children in disastrous situations: the girls stranded by themselves on an island in “Dogs Go Wolf,” the child who loses her parents after a tsunami in your recent New Yorker story “Under the Wave.” I’m wondering how you go about crafting a story like this—to what extent do you rely on research to capture a place or a natural disaster or the psychology of a child in a traumatic circumstance, and to what extent does your intuition lead you to imagine how a particular child might react in these extreme contexts? 

LG: I research the larger issues in my work. I read a lot of nonfiction books. And then I just try to think about what a child, these particular children, would do in any situation, and that is all intuition and trying to love these specific children. It’s a fine balance because it’s hard not to make children twee or unbelievable in fiction, and at the same time, children are automatically sympathetic. I write these stories because this is the way that my anxieties get organized. Maybe it’s reaching for a kind of magic spell to keep my children safe or to keep other children safe. I don’t want to write such stories, but they sit on me until I have to. 

PR: The story “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” appears in the anthology 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories. The note that precedes it says, “This story is indebted to stories her father-in-law has told of his Florida childhood.” Many writers are interested in using family stories as inspiration for their work, yet it is often so difficult to figure out how to fictionalize that material. How do you transform it into your own story? Could you speak a bit to that process, either for this particular story or just in general? How do you advise people to take material that may come from actual life and fictionalize it as one needs to do?

LG: I would tell people, gently, to please learn from my horrendous mistakes. In my first short story collection, there’s a story called “Majorette,” which I thought was a loving homage to my mom when I was writing it. I fictionalized some things, but she was a majorette, and the character’s progression in the book was roughly taken from her life. I think I knew that I wasn’t quite acting morally because I didn’t give my mother the story until the day before the book was published when she couldn’t stop it. She didn’t talk to me for three months. I’ve received death threats, but the letter she wrote me was the most devastating letter I’ve ever had directed toward me in my entire life.

I learned that you can take some things from the people you love, but you can’t take everything. It’s not about the exposition of secrets; it’s about the love with which it’s done and the truth that people will see in it. I think that I acted wrongly, and I will forever be sad and ashamed about it. That said, I do think that whatever stories are pressing on the writer’s mind, they should write, even if something in the story feels like the most offensive thing on the planet. But nobody has to publish everything we write the way it first comes out. Editing is a beautiful tool to reconcile the truth of the story with the truth of the world. I would urge people to write what they have to, but then edit until it’s right for the world. 

PR: What do you think would have happened if you had shown your mother that story earlier—do you think you might have come to some way of revising it that would have felt right?

LG: Absolutely, yes. Had I showed the story to my mother not as a fait accompli but as something in progress, she would have understood the impetus and love behind it. But I didn’t. I was being a vampire. I know in a certain way, fiction writers have to be murderers. We have to be able to look into those dark corners of ourselves and the people around us. But there are ways to write into the dark corners ethically. Like everything else in writing, we have to come to these understandings incrementally, through gradations of failure, until, at last, we’re no longer failing.