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Air date: March 10, 2012
[1:55] All right everybody, here we go again, this is it, this is Otherppl, this is me talking to you, this is you listening to me talk to you, this is the cranial entanglement. My guest today is Lauren Groff. She’s a very talented young writer who’s had an amazing start to her career. Her debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, was a big bestseller, and was critically acclaimed. Stephen King wrote about it gushingly. Her second book was a story collection hailed in similar fashion. It’s called Delicate Edible Birds. And now, she’s publishing her latest novel, which is called Arcadia, it’s available from Hyperion, and it’s already gotten starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus, as well as blurbs from people like Richard Russo.
[2:32] So, she’s a rising star, and I’m very happy to have her here on the show. She and I are going to be talking in just a minute. And I should also mention that her sister Sarah is also a high achiever. She’s a tremendous athlete, and she’s going to be competing in the Olympic games in London as a triathlete this summer. So look for Sarah Groff on your television set, and cheer for her as she goes for the gold in the triathlon. And you know, this sort of strikes me as somewhat odd, you know, genetically speaking, that a fiction writer and a triathlete are sisters.
[2:36] You know, ‘cause obviously one activity is relatively static, and the other activity involves a huge amount of physical exertion. But, you know, psychologically speaking, they seem somewhat similar to me. Like writing long form fiction, whether it’s a collection of stories or a novel or a memoir or whatever it is, it is a test of endurance. Like you do have to be willing to suffer, and you have to be willing to push yourself past your breaking point, in some instances, and keep going even when, you know, you don’t think you can.
[3:36] Which is somewhat similar to being a triathlete, right? But the thing about sports that always makes me uncomfortable to think about, is the issue of raw talent. You know? Like I’m capable of convincing myself that if I work hard enough as a writer, I can write a great book. I’m capable of convincing myself of that. You know, if I’m just exceptionally committed and focused and relentless, it can happen. And you know, talent is an overrated virtue, that whole theory.
[4:05] And there’s even a book out right now called Talent is Overrated. And it’s doing well. And It’s by Geoff Colvin. And it’s about like deliberate practice and how greatness is attainable but requires tremendous sacrifice, and if you’re not getting where you wanna go, you’re simply not working hard enough or smart enough, and you’re not practicing deliberately enough, and that sort of thing. Which can be painful news to hear, but might also be healthy medicine. And you know, I understand that. And I, you know, to be fair, I haven’t read the book either.
[4:35] Which I’m sure goes into even greater detail and more nuance, but I think that’s the gist. And I, you know, overall, I do like that message. You know? I like the idea that if you’re willing to do the work, you can make it, and if you’re willing to sacrifice and bleed for whatever it is that you wanna do, you know, I like that equation, because there’s hope in it. But what freaks me out about sports, is that there’s definitely a huge genetic component when it comes to whether or not someone succeeds.
[5:05] Like ninety nine percent of the time, or ninety nine percent of it, almost, you know, it seems like. And I say this, you know, with some degree of insight because my wife has worked on the ESPYs in the past, which is like the Oscars of sports, it’s like an awards show. So I’m a sports fan, and I get to go to this show, and I kinda nerd out and hang around backstage with all these athletes, and I’m telling you, when you’re in a room with these people, you realize just how physically inconsequential you are.
[5:35] Like, I’m almost six feet tall, and I’m somewhat athletic. That’s generous. But, you know, I’m an average athlete. And when I’m standing next to like LeBron James or Serena Williams, or Jerry Rice, or Brett Favre, forget about it. Like, forget about it. Like you’re in a room with two hundred of these people, you’re surrounded by them, and it’s just you and them? And you will feel the immense weight of your total mediocrity bearing down upon you.
[6:09] In that kind of room [laughs], you are a pitiful human specimen, compared to the rest of these people. And they could crush you like a bug. You’re literally standing next to 300-pound men who could give you, you know, like a twenty yard head start and could chase you down easily and break your femur like a toothpick.
[6:31] And yeah, I mean, they do work hard. And there’s no doubt about that, and some of them are, yeah, some of them are on human growth hormone or whatever. But they do work extremely hard, and that’s what kind of separates them, I think, from the other genetic freaks. And so, it just makes me wonder if this is what happens in writing, or any profession for that matter. You know? Like do you have to be a genetic freak first, to excel at the highest level? You know?
[6:59] Like do you have to have that enormous raw talent and that genetic gift, and if you don’t, will it ever happen? And then on top of that you have to work your ass off. You know? I kinda wonder if it takes both. Which can be depressing to think about. You know, assuming that that’s true, and that’s a big assumption, because, you know, what do I know? But assuming that it is, then, you know, the vast majority of writers who are out there struggling are essentially struggling and hoping to be, like, the next center on the Lakers, or the next shortstop for the Yankees, or the next gold medallist in the shot put.
[7:37] And it’s just never gonna happen. No matter what. Because they just don’t have the genetic gift. Like I could shot put all day long, you know, like I’m never gonna win the gold. But I mean, you know, and there are underdogs, too. I mean, that does happen, in sports and in life, where somebody, you know, outperforms their particular situation.
[8:06] But I kinda think that in our culture, we sort of love that narrative a little bit, you know, a little bit too much, because it applies to the vast majority of us. So of course we like it. And you know, just the other night I was watching TV, and flipping around, and Rocky II was on. And I found myself watching it and laughing. Like hysterically. Which sometimes happens with movies. You know, certain movies are what I call accidental comedies.
[8:34] You know where they’re intended as dramas, but they happen to be really really funny. And films like Top Gun, and Point Break, and Roadhouse are among some of the finest examples of the genre. So I’m watching Rocky, this Rocky movie, and I’m thinking to myself, you know, how absurd this is, that Rocky Balboa could ever beat Apollo Creed. Ever. Unless like Apollo Creed had walking pneumonia and gout.
[9:05] And what’s even funnier is that Sylvester Stallone is like five foot six, which is so clear in the movie. You know, he’s this tiny guy, at least in terms of height. And Carl Weathers, who plays Creed, is a former NFL linebacker. It’s an obnoxious fairytale. Not to mention that ninety nine times out of a hundred, a white guy is not going to be able to out-box a black dude. He’s just not. You know, that’s just life.
[9:34] And it’s ridiculous. You know? Like you gotta wonder, like what do black people think when they watch Rocky? I mean, It’s silly. And, you know, it is an underdog story, I guess, and Rocky’s the underdog, that’s for sure. And somehow he wins. He trains by punching the carcasses of cows. And…you know.
[10:00] Speaking of underdogs, Sylvester Stallone, who obviously has taken his fair share of criticism over the years for his acting style, and his diction and whatnot, but, you know, he’s also a screenwriter. And I just looked this up. He’s written 24 films in his career. And some of the bigger ones, obviously the Rocky films. You know, he wrote all the Rocky films. And he wrote Staying Alive, the John Travolta vehicle, which I was not aware of.
[10:28] And he wrote Rhinestone, remember that one, with Dolly Parton? And Cobra, which I liked quite a bit as a child. As well as Over the Top, the arm wrestling movie, which I was also a fan of. And then Cliffhanger, and then most recently The Expendables. And in doing this research, I discovered that Stallone’s very first writing credit was on a 1973 television show called The Evil Touch. And what’s interesting about this, is that he wrote under a pseudonym, and his pen name was Q. – like as in the letter Q – Moonblood. Q. Moonblood. [laughs]
[11:06] Which is sorta heavy. Moonblood. And I like that. It’s nice to know that even Sylvester Stallone went through a phase where he wanted to change his name. That comforts me. And I also learned that his mother Jackie is an astrologer and a former dancer, and formerly a promoter of women’s wrestling, and his father was a hairdresser. Like, all of this is interesting to me.
[11:30] You can start to see the pieces. You can start to see the genetic puzzle that formed Sylvester Stallone. And somehow it worked, you know? The guy’s had a big career. Can’t argue that. But, you know, does that mean he’s an elite talent? Is he an elite screenwriting talent? An elite actor? Or did he just practice deliberately, longer and harder and better than other people? Did he outwork everybody? Or did he get lucky?
[12:01] All of the above? You know? These are the questions that vex me. I don’t know. It’s a mystery, and I think it eludes us. And I think that’s why we like these kinds of underdog narratives. The David and Goliath. The Balboa and Creed. The James Joyce versus Q. Moonblood. [pause] Q. Moonblood. [music]
* * *
[12:28] BL: So like you’re down in the swamp, and you have kind of like a studio built into the garage, is that correct?
Lauren Groff: Yeah. It was a former woodworking shop, so it’s a mess. I mean, it’s meant for – My husband put up these walls, but it’s – I mean there are insects running around right now as I speak. And…It’s horrible. But it’s wonderful at the same time. I mean, I love that it’s really informal and I can come here whenever I want. And I have a treadmill in the corner, and an easel for my really bad painting, because it’s really bad.
[13:07] And, you know, this is also a place that my kids can’t get into. I refuse to allow anybody in here, so it’s perfect for what it is. It’s really the shed, in a lot of ways.
BL: Do you have like a lock on the door? Like, do you have a deadbolt?
LG: No, but nobody wants to go through the creepy garage to get to my studio. So nobody actually makes it in. It’s separated from the house, and you have to go across the garden, and then in through this really dark and dank garage, that’s just scary.
[13:36] And then you get into my little area. So you know, it’s a humbling maneuver to come into here in the mornings, when I start to work. It’s good.
BL: Yeah, and okay. So like you’re talking no climate control either? So like in the summers in Gainesville, I’m imagining like extreme heat and you’re just in there grinding it out. Is that correct?
LG: Yes, yes. Well, I mean, I sort of have climate control. I have a window unit, A/C unit, that we got from our neighbours when they were moving away.
[14:03] And I have a plug in heater, but honestly, in the summer, there’s no way that this window unit can keep up with the massive heat. So, and in the winter too, it gets really, it does get cold here. It’s just, I mean, not a comfortable place, but that sometimes is really good for writing. You shouldn’t be too comfortable, I think.
BL: Well, that’s what I was gonna say. There’s something. See, like I’m imagining this in like heroic terms, you know, like you’re –
[14:31] LG: [laughs] It’s not heroic but –
BL: It’s like a sweat lodge or something in the summer, and then, I don’t know…And then what kind of – we’re talking like critters? Like we’re talking like cockroaches and?
LG: Yeah, we’re talking big, you know those lizards that sort of scamper about everywhere down here? We have those. I think I have a raccoon, above my head, in the garage, but I don’t really know – it’s either a raccoon or a rat. There’s something living up there. Or it’s a person, I don’t know. [laughs]
[15:01] BL: There could be, there could be a human being nesting in your garage.
LG: [laughs] Anything is possible, you know. It sounds like a human. The footsteps are very loud. And if it is, oh well. I mean, it’s a place out of the sun. That’s good. That actually happened in my youth. There’s a guy who escaped from jail who bedded down in one of my neighbours’ basements, for a very long time. For like three months, and nobody found him until later. It was a fascinating thing that happened.
[15:33] BL: Oh my god.
LG: I know!
BL: He wasn’t dangerous, was he?
LG: I don’t know if he was dangerous or not, but it was so terrible because there were kids in the house who were actually living upstairs while this man was sleeping in the basement. But I don’t know if he was dangerous or not. You know, when you’re a kid, your parents sort of try not to tell you the really bad parts of what happened. So you know, he could have been totally innocuous and in there for shoplifting or something, but I don’t know.
[16:03] But I think about that a lot. You know, the man in the basement who may or may not be harboring grudges.
BL: [laughs] It’s the stuff of a story. I feel like there’s fiction in there somewhere.
LG: I know, there should be. You know, I tried actually once writing something about it. But it never came to fruition.
BL: Okay, so like just like, I don’t want to like spend too much time on this, but, you know, one thing that you did say that caught my attention is the fact that you have a treadmill in your office, like in your office space, which I think –
[16:33] LG: Yes.
BL: It’s almost like a hamster wheel. Like I feel like this is fascinating.
LG: Yeah, yeah.
BL: Is that its purpose? Because I could see that actually being really helpful.
LG: It’s super helpful. I use it when I read, actually. Not that I can’t read sitting down, because I read all day long, but what it does is it forces me to get through books in one, you know, burst.
[16:59] And having the rhythm pushes me really fast through the research books that I need to do in order to write. And the other thing too is I get really anxious when I write. I’m just an anxious person in general, and I have to blow off some of that steam somehow. I also have an enormous hula hoop in here, which is very helpful. You know, all the cockroaches laugh at me but I hula around.
BL: [laughs] As does the man who lives upstairs.
LG: [laughs] I know, right? I know. And the neighbors who can see in too. They’re all laughing.
[17:31] BL: So, okay. So I want to stop again. ‘Cause like you say writing makes you anxious, and this comforts me, because as I was just telling you before we started this, like I just was working, and I feel the same way. It is the weirdest emotional process, because I find myself feeling anxious while I’m doing it, and I find myself like kind of desperately wanting to get this thing out of me and done, and then when it’s done and I look back on it, I have all this nostalgia, like it was the greatest thing ever. Does that make any sense to you?
[18:00] LG: Yeah, and then the anxiety grows when your book is about to come out, and it becomes almost as if you’re producing an actual human child, that, you know, you have to push into the world, and it just becomes a totally different anxiety. It’s the same amount of anxiety but it morphs throughout the [laughs] –
BL: We’re making this profession sound so great, aren’t we? I mean –
LG: Well, if we praise it too much, everyone’s going to be a writer, so we gotta make it sound terrible.
[18:31] BL: That’s right. We’ve gotta weed some people out.
LG: [laughs] Right. Exactly.
BL: So and then the easel? Like, you know, that’s the other part of your workspace that I find fascinating. Like sometimes you’ll just, like if you’re writing and you get stuck, will you go paint?
LG: Yeah, and I’m serious that I’m the worst possible artist on the face of the planet, but what I like about it is that, you know, I think we all struggle with feelings of perfectionism, and I work really hard against that, and painting is my way to say, you know, you can be so freaking terrible at something it doesn’t matter.
[19:07] And it’s just a good reminder when I sit back down at the first draft and say, okay, it doesn’t matter, this is a first draft, I can just, you know, throw anything on the page, it’s fine, it’ll end up being fine. It’s just, you know, an exercise in humility again.
BL: Well it’s that too, but I also feel like maybe it would be, because I’ve tried to do this before? I fell out of it.
[19:30] I went through like a quick phase, which is common for me, I’ve been through like, I feel like I’ve been through every phase, but I was like, “I’m gonna be a painter, because I’m gonna exercise a different part of my brain.”
LG: Right. [laughs]
BL: This’ll like loosen me up for writing. And then I got very into portraiture, and –
BL: Well, and Modigliani in particular. Like, I was like –
BL: Yeah I was like really, I was affected by that, those portraits that he did, and I decided I was gonna try to, you know, copy him, to learn.
[19:57] And I wound up painting these portraits that, you know, this is gonna sound crude, but I just feel like I painted like several portraits of people with you know, horrible like disfigurement or something.
LG: [laughs] Right.
BL: They were not appealing to look at. So I kind of like lost interest. But that strikes me as something that could potentially be healthy. Not only for the humility part of it, but also for just the parts of the brain that it works. It feels different, you know? ‘Cause I did remember doing it and feeling like really opened up or just like, meditative or something. Like there’s something great about painting.
[20:36] LG: Yeah, well, it’s the same thing with other visual arts. And I took a lot of photography classes in college, and it’s true that when you start looking at the world through sort of a more visual medium, you start seeing things very differently. You start seeing, you know, the quality of the light, and you start seeing detail, and texture, in a way that possibly a writer sitting in a dank little studio would never see it.
[21:05] So it does help seeing the visual sense of the world. And more than visual. You just open yourself up, as you said, to other sensory impressions.
BL: Well, yeah, and it probably tunes up, like you say, it probably tunes up the visual aspect of your writing. You know, like you –
BL: You see better.
LG: Yeah, you do. And the other thing, too, that is helpful, and I don’t know if you do this too, but I make bread.
[21:32] And I think the kneading process, because some bread you have to knead forever, is, I don’t know, there’s something so, obviously so visceral about it. You just…You’re up to your elbows in this gooey crap, and you just have to work over in your head what you’re working on. And it’s incredibly helpful to root you in a place, and to remind you of the other senses.
[22:00] The, sort of the texture of the bread itself, and the smell, and to bring you back into that element too. I think that’s also, just in the same way, as helpful as painting is to me.
BL: Well, yeah, no, it sounds kinda similar to like, you know, you hear creative people talk about how they get their best ideas while like washing the dishes or something. Like just getting your hands dirty, going through a process, like you know, cooking. I feel like that, that makes sense, even though I don’t do it. I probably should more –
LG: You don’t cook?
[22:30] BL: Well, I mean, I microwave artfully, you know?
LG: [laughs] That’s good.
BL: But, no, again it’s the kind of thing that like I tell myself I should do, and I’ve gone through like phases where like I’ll research a recipe, and then I’ll go into the kitchen, and I’ll make something. And, you know, it’s satisfying, but it feels like a lot of work to me, and typically at the end of the day I feel like I just don’t have the energy sometimes, to like dig in and do that, you know?
LG: It’s true, and I’m not the best cook in the world either. I mean, I do my things, I do my breads, and I do a lot of baking.
[23:03] But it does feel as if it’s a waste of creativity, you know what I mean? If you’re here to make up your own recipes. And just, you eat the food, and then you have nothing to show for it. And so much of writing is about doing the work, and having nothing to show for it, that it feels like a repetition of the loss, in a way sometimes, I think.
BL: Wow, you know, I compare it in my head to like other arts. You know and like I often imagine, like, are painters having more fun than we are?
[23:33] LG: Definitely.
BL: I think musicians definitely are.
LG: Yes, definitely.
BL: I think musicians, to be a musician, to have that natural capacity and the ability to like sing and play an instrument, and then to get paid for it, and actually make a living from it, like that to me I think is the height of artistic glory. Like, just to step out on stage and have like 50,000 people in real time just like, screaming your name while you, you know, change their, you know, neurochemistry by strumming a guitar.
[24:02] Do you know what I’m saying, like that, that sounds like a lot of fun. And I can only imagine what that must feel like. There are very few people who can do that. At the same time, I revere writers whose work I admire, you know, and it’s an amazing skill, but, you know, knowing what it takes to do it, you know, or at least having some inkling of what it takes to get that work done, I mean, it’s just, there’s something blue collar by comparison about writing. And maybe I’m just idealizing music. You know, maybe that’s what we’re doing. But that’s the way it seems.
[24:34] LG: Well yeah, I mean, what you see with a musician is when they come out on stage, but you don’t necessarily see all of the hours they spent sort of strumming along on their little ukelele or something, you know? You don’t see what goes into it, and all of the classes that they have to take. I mean, because you’re a writer, you see all of those hours at your desk as workman-like, but I’m sure they would say the same thing too.
[25:02] And then when the book comes out it’s this big celebration and suddenly it’s this thing that’s public when it was private before.
BL: Yeah, but it’s not like a sold out show at Madison Square Garden, come on. [laughs]
LG: Well, I mean, if you’re Jeffrey Eugenides, you are! And you’re striding over Times Square in your billboard and your vest.
BL: That’s right, you got your vest on, you’re just walking around Manhattan, just owning it.
LG: I mean, that was amazing. He was like this incredible urban pirate. It was phenomenal.
[25:30] BL: Yeah, no I know, I mean, I remember, it made a huge, like I think it even got its own Twitter account. Like someone started –
LG: It did.
BL: – a Twitter account for Jeffrey Eugenides’ vest, which I thought was awesome.
LG: I loved it.
BL: Okay, so, another thing I want to ask you about is a reading project that you self-started a while back. And it was something that you did where you would reread canonized work that you didn’t like at first. Or at least on the first time or even more than one time that you read it.
[26:00] And this is interesting to me. Like, for example, like one of the books that you read was Moby-Dick, correct?
BL: And like, the first three times you read it, which is, you know, it’s admirable that you even tried three times. Like usually when someone doesn’t like a book, that’s it, right?
BL: Like why did you keep going back to it, and then what was it about the fourth time that made it different? ‘Cause I want to say I read somewhere that you said it changed your life, you know, which is pretty strong.
LG: Oh it did, yeah.
BL: Like, strong language. Like what was that like? How did that happen?
[26:32] LG: I came to the realization a while ago that, when I don’t like a book, it’s usually in my head. There’s something that’s happening in the alchemy between my brain and the book, that’s making it fall flat. And I knew there were intrinsic good qualities in Moby-Dick, obviously, because everybody always hears about it, and the first part of the book is kind of funny, and it’s odd, and it’s attractive.
[27:05] So, I knew that there was something in that book, and like any other book, when you go back to it, you find yourself in whatever time that you are in. So, you know, and I think I mentioned this as an example, but just because it’s so vibrant and then so true, but Lolita at 13 and Lolita at 30 is a totally different book, I mean.
LG: You know, right?
[27:30] At 13, it’s all titillation and crazy, you know, fireworks going off in your head. And now, you know, if I were to read it, I would definitely sympathize with Lolita’s poor mom, because I’m a mother… So everything changes as your life changes too. And right now I’m trying really hard to read the reissue of Proust, and this is going to sound so pretentious, but I feel like, you know, I’m a writer, this is my world, I should probably know Proust.
[28:07] And I love Swann’s Way, and I can get through Swann’s Way, but I’m having so much difficulty getting through everything else, and I think part of it is, you know, I’ve had two babies in the last four years, and possibly being sleep deprived keeps me from being able to follow the sentences. But I know at some point, I’m going to be able to go back to these books and read them and they’re going to blow my mind. I just know it.
[28:30] You know it. You read the text, and you can feel sort of the power in it. But it’s maybe not right for me at the moment. And that’s the same with, you know, poetry, and my contemporaries’ books, and things of that nature, I just wanna keep it alive and give it a chance and not be the kind of person who throws away a book because it didn’t dovetail with who I was at the moment I was reading it.
[29:01] BL: Well, no, it’s an important point. I mean, I’ve had books, like you talk about not being able to like follow the sentences because you’re tired, but like I’ve had experiences reading books where I truly didn’t understand what the person was saying.
BL: Like, I could not understand the book. And what’s odd is that, you know, like five or six or seven years later, I would pick up the same book and understand it perfectly. And like I haven’t had that happen a lot, but like I’ve had that happen, and it’s like, it’s really jarring and strange and interesting, you know?
[29:33] It’s such a function of time, like and where you are in your particular experience of life. Like, you know? Sometimes a book, like it’s always great when a book syncs up perfectly on the first read, and you pick up the right book at just the right time, and it speaks to you like you know –
LG: Right, right.
BL: – in this beautiful, immediate way, but like you say, and it’s something that I should remind myself, is that just because I pick up a book and it doesn’t work for me now, doesn’t mean it won’t work for me later.
[30:01] And I think it’s also, you know, it can be sort of arrogant, to pick up a classic, and just be like, “That is just, this is crap,” you know? Do you know what I’m saying? Because I’ve done that, if I’m being honest. Like, I’ll pick up a book that everyone tells me I should love, or that everyone tells me is important, and I’ll have a lot of trouble accessing it. You know, like I can read Shakespeare and be like, “Uh, you know, like falling asleep here.” And I hate to say that, because it makes me sound stupid, but it’s the truth.
[30:31] LG: No!
BL: But you know what I’m saying.
BL: I think it’s a common experience, and I remember reading a quote from John Updike where he said, “You don’t read the classics because you love them, you read them until you love them.”
BL: And I think that makes it – I mean, that’s sort of what we’re speaking to here. I mean, does that make some sense?
LG: Yeah! Yeah.
BL: You stick with it, or at least you go back and revisit it, and, you know, maybe you never hit that perfect synchronicity where it’s the right book at the right time in your life, but I think that having kind of a healthy respect for a book that has stood the test of time like that is probably more appropriate than just like shunning it or calling it bad, you know?
[31:10] LG: Although, there are books that have withstood the test of time, and are bad.
BL: Yeah, that’s true.
LG: Objectively bad. Like any Ayn Rand book is just bad. It’s just bad! And if you like it if you’re older than sixteen, then you should read more books.
BL: Yeah, then you are bad. You are a human sheep.
[31:33] LG: [laughs] No, that’s not very nice. But I have a visceral reaction to her, but you know, in the apocalypse, perhaps I will reread her work and I will find her brilliant and her work to be prophetic, who knows.
BL: But you know what it is about – is it “ann” Rand or “ein” Rand?
LG: I thought it was “ein”? But –
BL: Yeah, let’s say “ein.” Like Ayn Rand – she’s the perfect example of the kind of writer that I’m sort of like amazed by, and confused by at the same time, because she was so confident in what she thought.
[32:10] LG: Right.
BL: Like, she believed her own ideas, and like I think that there’s like, I don’t know. This is what, I get conflicted about it, because when somebody believes their own ideas, I can sometimes say to myself, well clearly they’re just, you know, egomaniacs, or clearly they’re, you know, deluded in some way.
[32:28] BL: And there’s also, like I wanna say there’s like a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who I always go to, like ‘cause whatever he said must be absolutely true. Like that’s how I have him rated in my mind. But he’s like, you know, the mark of true genius is to believe in like the beauty of one’s own thoughts. You know, I’m paraphrasing but…I think there’s something to that too. Like, you know what I’m saying? To believe in your own ideas even if they don’t necessarily make sense or seem beautiful to other people, you know, can be a virtue too. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s like striking –
LG: Yeah, yeah.
[33:00] BL: It’s like striking a balance between the two things, and it’s just like, I’m like the exact opposite of the kind of person who could come up with like, a philosophy, you know? Like you do not want me to have that job. You know, that would be a disaster. Like It would just be like, “Well, I don’t know,” you know. Like that’s basically what it would be.
LG: Right, right.
BL: But she seemed to like, she seemed to think she had it figured out, which is like astonishing to me, you know?
[33:31] LG: Right! But was she saying anything new? I don’t think so, I think she was just digesting previous philosophical insights, and putting them into her own sort of cardboard-y, psycho world. You know? I don’t know. I don’t know. You’re right, I love the confidence. Honestly, I would follow, I would read a lot of anyone who does show that just pure authority.
[34:01] And I read Ayn Rand’s books, you know? That doesn’t mean that I admire them, or love them. The other thing, too, is like – Okay, this is the other thing why I dislike her very very much. But…So the novel to me is the most powerful instrument that we as humans have to be able to sort of peer into other people’s hearts. And what she does is she takes this incredible powerful tool and she turns it into a weapon.
[34:32] She weaponizes humanity in a way that sickens me. I mean, instead of…It’d be as if I were to hand you a pencil, for the purpose of not to draw or to write, but to poke someone else’s eye out. You know what I mean? She’s turning what is so beautiful into something that is crass, and closes down the human heart as opposed to opens it, and this is why I hate her.
[35:05] I think I hate the underlying philosophy more than anything.
BL: Well yeah, and it’s also odd fiction because it contains like these like long philosophical tracts, like within narrative, you know. It’s rare that fiction like that could succeed, you know, at least in terms of like book sales, that people would actually embrace it. But I guess she found a way, and she has her devotees, but we are not two of them. [laughs]
[35:29] LG: No. Good.
BL: So let’s talk about your childhood.
LG: [laughs] Oh, you want me to weep? Just kidding.
BL: Yeah, no this is like Barbara Walters. It’s a goal of mine to make somebody cry, in like a gentle tender way. So, Cooperstown, your childhood.
LG: Yes, Cooperstown. Yes.
BL: In a nutshell, like what was it like for you? Like..to me, I think Coopertown, and because I think of the Hall of Fame, I’m automatically thinking like Americana, and like, you know, like a Fourth of July parade, and like, you know, everybody knows the mayor or something like that, you know?
[36:02] LG: Everybody does know the mayor. That’s what’s amazing. And it is sort of the Fourth of July parade all year round. Have you been there? Have you been to Cooperstown?
BL: I have not. I have not.
LG: Okay, so it’s a tiny little village. I think there are about, there are fewer than 2000 people who live there now. And it’s on this very beautiful lake about nine miles long. And there are lots of old houses, and practically everyone in the summer has a flag out front, and it’s a just, it’s a very quiet place.
[36:36] There’s one stoplight in town. So it was a fantastic place to grow up. So I sort of feel as if I got a 1950s childhood in this somewhat modern town in the middle of nowhere, you know? It has this large hospital in town which employs almost everybody, as well as the Baseball Hall of Fame –
BL: What kind of hospital are we talking about?
[37:00] LG: It’s a general hospital, but it also has a lot of clinics in neighboring towns, so its reach is really broad across upstate New York.
LG: But it’s pretty big, and it spreads all throughout, you know, the area, and most of the people are funded through the hospital in some way. And there are a lot of visitors for the Hall of Fame, I don’t know how many, but there are a lot.
[37:29] And then there’s an opera house, you know, in the middle of this tiny little sleepy village, there’s this enormous opera house called Glimmerglass, and I love to go because it’s…they actually have some pretty groundbreaking work, and so it’s this idyllic place, but nothing like, you know, there’s no such thing as utopia, it doesn’t exist. So you know, as you grow up, you grow up knowing all of the legends of, you know, James Fenimore Cooper, who was a child of the town also, and all of the other things that really only come up if you’re there for the summers and you talk to one another over the campfire and things like that.
[38:08] So it’s a really beautiful town, and I go there when it’s so unbearable I can’t work in my office here in the summers, and it’s so cold up there even in the summers, that, it’s much cooler than it is now in February. So, yeah, I mean, I love it, and I loved it growing up and it was just sleepy and quiet and just wonderful.
[38:34] BL: So what was your family doing there, if there’s like only 2000 people there? They were just working at the hospital, is that what it was?
LG: Yeah. My dad worked for the hospital, and my mom is, was a science teacher, and then she went back to school and she’s a physician’s assistant.
BL: Okay, so you come from scientific people, and yet you’re a writer. Is that odd –
BL: I mean, is that strange? Do you have any kind of like lineage, you know, artistically?
[38:59] LG: No, not at all. So my grandfather is Pennsylvania Dutch and he has a greenhouse, and you know, I’m really not from any artistic people. But when I told my dad that I wanted to be a pediatrician when I was a kid, he laughed. [laughs] I think because I don’t have a math or science brain, and I almost have zero memories for detail, and you need a memory if you’re going to be a doctor. It’s just necessary.
[39:34] So he said no, you know, you like to read a lot, maybe you should think along those lines. And I took him at his word. I mean, he was right. If he saw that I really wanted to be a doctor he would have supported me a hundred percent, but you know, you know your kids, and it’s not that he didn’t encourage me, but he said, “Well, you have other talents. [laughs] Maybe that’s what you need to do.”
[39:59] BL: He’s a good dad, he sounded like he was gently nudging you like away from the precipice, like, “No no no.”
LG: [laughs] Right.
BL: You know, it brings something to mind, like it’s so strange ‘cause I listen to you talk, and I’m somewhat similar, like neither of my parents are artists and I have a little bit of it on my mom’s side but I don’t have any great pedigree or anything and…But I do remember people and instances in my childhood, and these moments were probably really kind of just like minor in terms of how long they lasted and, you know, the tone with which they happened, but I remember people telling me I should be a writer. Including my parents.
[40:36] LG: Oh wow.
BL: Yeah, but you know –
LG: That’s incredible.
BL: No, but just like your dad, just saying like “Oh you like to read a lot,” something along those lines. Like, it just…You remember that. I happened to remember that. I think a lot of, I don’t know, that stuff matters. You know what I’m saying? I guess it depends on who tells you, but like you can’t underestimate the impact that something like that might have on a young person, because like I don’t remember anything, and I remember that, you know?
[41:00] LG: Right. Right.
BL: It’s interesting.
LG: It never seemed possible for me to be a writer, even though, you know, in my deepest heart that’s probably what I wanted to do. It just…Because I had never known an actual person who actually created anything, really, it just didn’t seem like something that a human being could do. And obviously it is, but until you actually come into contact with a person who’s done it and who’s lived to tell the tale…
[41:30] In my head, until college, writers were these golden people who could endure anything and were incredible. And they’re very much not.
BL: [laughs] And now you know. How painfully –
LG: Now I know. How excruciatingly ordinary –
BL: Yeah, so it sounds like you had a happy childhood. I mean, it sounds kind of idyllic, I mean, in some ways. Obviously we know that it’s not all ideal, but I mean it sounds as though you had like a happy family. Your sister was like a good athlete, you were kind of like a bookworm. But it was good in Cooperstown?
[42:05] LG: It was good in Cooperstown. It wasn’t perfect, no, what is that quote from, I think it’s Flannery O’Connor, do you know the one I’m talking about? Where she said if you survived your childhood you have enough to write about for the rest of your life?
BL: Yeah, yeah.
LG: A little paraphrased. So, yeah, it was really, it was lovely and I would raise kids there in a heartbeat.
[42:29] BL: Okay, and did it get suffocating when you were like in high school and stuff? Like did you, did the smallness of it start to make itself known the older you got, or was it just something you didn’t realize until you left, or did you never care?
LG: Well, it wasn’t something that I cared too much about, because I read so much, Brad, and I was a total jock. So I filled my time with either making myself incredibly tired or trying to read myself to sleep, because I have sleep issues.
[43:01] BL: Wait, you have what issues? Sleep issues?
LG: Sleep issues, yeah.
BL: Okay, me too.
LG: I think it’s difficult…Yeah, oh good. A fellow sufferer. So a lot of my time was spent getting away either in body or in mind. So it wasn’t, it didn’t feel stifling to me because I always knew that I was going elsewhere.
BL: So wait, but what was your sport when you were a kid?
LG: So I did soccer, swimming, and track. Those were my things. And then when I got to college, I did soccer and crew.
[43:29] BL: Okay, and so you went to Amherst?
LG: Yes, yeah.
BL: Okay, so…like what was…What were you like there? That’s a pretty good school. Like you were a pretty serious student?
LG: Yeah, I was. Well, I wasn’t the best student obviously. And…I was physical, I think. I was a tricky person at Amherst. I was trying to discover who I was. Ugh.
BL: So what do you mean you were tricky? What do you mean, were you like, were you experimenting with drugs, or were you moody, and…I don’t know? Tell me what that meant.
[44:05] LG: So, okay, so I took a year off between high school and college, and I lived in France for a year.
LG: I know! Unbearable. [laughs] Totally insufferable.
BL: No, you have no idea. You have no idea. Like I’ve talked about this, god, I want to say I might’ve even talked about it on this show, but I have this conversation constantly about how much I would’ve benefited from a gap year. Like I needed a gap year.
LG: Oh it’s amazing.
[44:30] Yeah, it was the very best thing I could’ve ever done, ever. Thank goodness I did it, too.
BL: How did you do it? How did you get to do it? Who made this happen?
LG: So the rotary club, and I think they just phased it out, which is so devastating for the youths of the world, but they had this program called, the…I don’t know, the Youth Exchange Program? And I got exchanged for another kid, and I went to Mans, France, which is, it used to be incredibly beautiful, but it got bombed heavily in WWII.
[45:05] And it’s sort of, it’s near Brittany, it’s not quite Brittany. But…And I stayed with a couple families, and one of them was a family of caterers whom I absolutely adored. But I ate a lot, obviously, and when I came back, I was in the airport, and I guess I gained so much weight that my parents didn’t recognize me?
[45:31] BL: [laughs]
LG: Devastating. Devastating for, you know, an 18-year-old girl.
BL: Hah. Like you walked up to them, and they were like, it didn’t even register? Is that what it was like?
LG: No, they looked past me as I came off, you know, out of the boarding area, whatever that area was. Yeah, they were scanning faces beyond mine.
[45:58] LG: [laughs] And I was enormous. And so I spent that whole summer, you know, really moody and angry. And so I got to school a little bit angry and moody, and feeling a little bit superior, which is total bullshit, but you know, I spoke French.
BL: No, I remember that. Kids would come back from like semesters abroad, myself included, and you felt superior for like a good like three or four months, you know, just because –
LG: At least.
BL: Just because you had been somewhere other than America.
[46:31] And you were, were you fully bilingual?
LG: No, well, at the time I was really fluent. And what was weird is I actually, so one of my majors in college was French, and when I was in France I read a lot. But it’s hard to gain fluency in reading unless you just do it a ton. So I gained more fluency in college in reading than I did, and I lost a lot of the verbal fluency that I’d had. And now I go, and they laugh at me a little bit.
[46:59] I mean it’s really adorable. You know, I try really hard, and it’s a little bit of a joke. But I’m still, I’m reading a lot of books in French now for whatever the next project is that I’m doing ends up being, and so I feel really comfortable in the language until I open my mouth.
LG: Right. Right. So I was totally insufferable for a while, and then you know, I fell in love, and was a mess and…
[47:31] BL: What do you mean, like you fell in love with some guy and then he broke your heart?
LG: No, no! I – with my husband.
BL: Oh, okay, okay.
LG: But I didn’t, that was sort of the problem, I didn’t want to be tied down to a person at 21 when I was going to be a writer, you know? I wanted to have experiences. And so I just didn’t appreciate him until a few years later.
[47:58] So, you know, college, I look back on myself and cringe a lot. It was not the best.
BL: I look back on my whole life and cringe a lot, you know?
LG: I know, that’s true. Yeah, who are we joking? I do too.
BL: So when you were at Amherst you were already focused on being a writer. Like, you knew.
LG: Privately, yes. But I only took, I think, two creative writing classes.
BL: And that’s where David Foster Wallace went? Isn’t that right?
LG: Yeah, yeah.
BL: So did he loom in your mind at all? I don’t want to ask too much of a goofy question, but, I mean, was his presence –
[48:35] Like I’m imagining that especially in writing circles on that campus, his presence must loom large, right?
LG: He was enormous! I mean, enormous. I think he’s the only person in Amherst history who got summa, or high honors, from two departments, the philosophy and the English departments. So not only was he academically superior to all human beings on Earth, he had had these extraordinary books.
[49:03] And I took Infinite Jest on my senior spring break –
BL: [laughs] Just like all the other kids.
LG: [laughs] I know right? Insufferable
LG: [laughs] Right. Just like all the other kids. But it was actually strangely the perfect book for a spring break, because you know, you wake up hungover, or you don’t go to sleep because you have sleep problems, and you get deeply into this vast never-ending narrative that’s extremely parallel to your sort of surreal feelings about Miami, which is where we were at the moment.
[49:41] So it was the perfect book for spring break. Yeah, no, he was a big major force to be reckoned with, and we all tried to reckon.
BL: Yeah, I can imagine. And then once you left Amherst, what did you do?
LG: So, I bartended. And this is my voice, which is really kind of small, and I can’t project.
[40:04] So I was in Philadelphia for a year, and I did all sorts of horrible temp-y sort of things, like I was a Sears Club canvasser, and I bartended, and I…what else did I do? I was sort of a telemarketer for a blood cord saving place. It was just miserable.
[50:31] And then we went to California for two years, and I got a nice job at Stanford that let me sort of write a lot when all my other work was done. And then I went to grad school.
BL: So wait, you were in Palo Alto?
LG: Yeah, yeah. We were in, um, we had a little cottage in Atherton. Which is near Redwood City.
BL: Okay, so that was just like, we just kind of want to go live like a bohemian lifestyle in Northern California? Was that it, or was there something?
[50:59] LG: No, my husband had a job at eBay.
BL: Oh okay.
LG: Yeah, and I didn’t have any, I was like, “I’m a writer, I will never make money.” So, you know, at the time, he was like, “Okay well, it doesn’t matter, we’ll find a little place to live and you can write.” And then I got so bored, I needed to get a job, so I lucked into a job.
BL: At Stanford. Just, doing what?
LG: They were starting up this program called the – oh god, I can’t believe I’m gonna forget this, this is totally ridiculous.
[51:32] The – horrible, Lauren. I spent two years of my life there.
BL: [laughs] It’s okay.
LG: [laughs] Like, this just is terrible. The Center for Psychiatry and the Law, and they did forensic psychiatry for legal cases.
BL: Oh, okay, that’s interesting.
LG: Yeah, yeah. And I helped them start it up, and was just sort of the admin person.
[51:58] BL: Oh, okay. Okay. And so then you went to graduate school at Madison.
BL: And you studied – I always ask, like, I talked to Emma Straub, who also went to Madison.
LG: Oh yeah, right right.
BL: On this show, so I have to ask questions about Lorrie Moore, because I have a crush on Lorrie Moore, and I think that, like my joke is that she’s like the Meryl Streep of American letters. Or there’s like a Helen Mirren kind of quality to her.
LG: [laughs] Yeah.
BL: Like do you have any Lorrie Moore stories? Like was she your mentor, or what happened?
[52:28] LG: She was. So, so Emma was I think the class after mine, and fiction classes don’t overlap there, because there are only six people per class. So my story about Lorrie Moore was, I went there to study with her because I adore the woman. And by the way, she’s far too young to be Meryl Streep or –
BL: I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Lorrie. I’m sorry. I need to apologize publicly to Lorrie Moore, because eventually I’m going to beg her to come on this show.
[53:00] But like, I mean only in terms of like her stature, and, like the…I don’t know, there’s something about it. Like there’s something about her. I find there to be something sort of like sexy about her intelligence, but also like, motherly. Like I don’t know. I’m using…I’m probably just like painting myself into a corner here, but I don’t know, I think I’m not alone. I think I’m getting at something that a lot of people feel, and I think especially a lot of male fans of hers, you know?
[53:31] Like I want her to take care of me or something. I don’t know what it is.
LG: She’s just as sexy in person, watch out.
BL: Yeah, I know.
LG: Just watch out.
BL: It’s troubling.
LG: [laughs] She’s magnificent, and she’s wise, so wise. And every word out of her mouth is either hilarious or tough. I mean she’s a tough person in class. But…
BL: Is she? Like is she hard on you when you’re workshopping stuff?
[54:03] LG: Meaning, only in her reactions. She never says anything mean. I don’t think the woman can say a mean thing, but it’s more like if she doesn’t respond to your work with positive, you know, sort of like this overwhelming sense of love, then you know that there’s something not right about it. And I have to tell you, I had never worked harder in my life before then, before I got to a workshop with Lorrie, because just imagine giving a story to Lorrie Moore.
[54:39] BL: Oh God.
LG: Holy crap. Oh my God.
BL: I’m sweating just thinking about it.
LG: [laughs] Right? Exactly. It’s so fearsome to imagine her eyes on your words. So, I mean, talk about having feelings of perfectionism. You worked and worked and worked until you got something even approximating good.
[55:02] And then she would just sort of just let the class talk and say some very mild gentle things, and her disapproval, it’s sort of like the best parent ever, in a way, because she never said anything mean, but she made her disapproval clear if she didn’t like something.
BL: How? Like just with like a look, or would she say like, “I’m disappointed in you, Lauren.”
LG: No, she never said, “I’m disappointed in you.” But she would say, “Well, this part is not…I don’t know. What does the class think?”
[55:36] And even by doing that, you know, by the mild disapproval, that would…something…you would just know that this wasn’t right and it wasn’t good and it would break your heart. Whereas, you know, with any other class, you know, someone would say, “Oh this is a piece of shit,” and you wouldn’t care as much.
[55:57] BL: No, it’s like…it makes me think, like obviously it’s like an onerous burden upon her students and like, you know, just to be in that position would be stressful.
BL: But she’s a smart enough person and a self-aware enough person to know that a lot of the students in that program revere her work, you know? It’s not an easy thing for her to probably admit publicly or anything, but like she has to know, and so –
LG: Oh yeah.
BL: If that’s the case, that’s like a big responsibility, and she probably knows that if she comes across as being too harsh, or uses the wrong word, or slips and like tonally doesn’t, you know, critique with gentleness, she can crush somebody.
[56:40] You know what I’m saying? Like, the weight of her opinion matters to people, I mean, I imagine. Right? Or am I like overstating it?
LG: No, I think you’re definitely right, but I also think that it’s just who she is, too. I mean, I think she’s just a really kind person. Kind and wise.
BL: Well, exactly though, it’s an outgrowth of that. Like a kind person would be aware of that, you know what I’m saying, like?
[57:01] LG: Right, right.
BL: It’s not that she’s like obsessing about her own power, but it’s like, you know, there’s a responsibility involved and I think like, she’s sensitive. You know, you would have to be, if you’re a kind person. So that’s a part of it, that I just, I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about clearly before, but like she must think to herself, like, “Okay, go easy.” Like ‘cause you know in her head she’s like, “This is terrible,” you know, “This just doesn’t work,” but if she says it that way, someone’s gonna go home and start like cutting themselves or something, you know.
[57:30] LG: [laughs] But, you know, you do hear a lot about super famous, super well regarded writers being really tough and really mean. I mean, talk about David Foster Wallace, he was not a piece of cake. I mean, he was a difficult person. I wonder –
BL: No yeah, I didn’t realize this. I had him pegged as like this gentle sweet genius. You know, and I think he was that. But like, I was reading some sort of essay or piece about him not too long ago, like within the past year, and there was an anecdote. Didn’t he date Mary Karr? I think that’s who it was.
[58:04] LG: Yes. Yeah he did.
BL: He like got into some like fight with her, and it was like, you know, I mean, he was a human being, everybody has their moments. But it’s just like, I kind of held him in my mind in this like really high saintly place, and it was like jarring to like read that and be like, “Oh my God.” You know like…Somebody who’s that bright is usually somewhat temperamental, you know?
[58:26] LG: I read on his syllabus – it’s online. You can find it somewhere. From Pomona, I believe. And, I mean, he says in no uncertain terms, “If anything’s late, you fail.” You know, like he was really…”Tough. You fail.” And I would not have expected, because I actually had him pegged as a sort of a gentle soft kind sort of person, too. And you’re right, he probably was, but, you know, to be a teacher it’s a little bit different. But I also wonder if the Lorrie situation, if people expect different things from female writers and teachers.
[59:04] And I don’t want to like open up this whole can of worms, because it’s an enormous can of worms, like an industrial sized one.
LG: But I wonder if people allow male pedagogical models to be harsher. Or feel that it’s less devastating if they are.
BL: Maybe, maybe, I could see like – I mean, this is a quick reaction.
[59:29] But like I can see it being less devastating for me. Like…if I imagine getting berated by David Foster Wallace, that would really suck. But it wouldn’t suck quite as bad as having Lorrie Moore be like, “This is terrible.” Like that would hurt me more for some reason. And I don’t know exactly why. Maybe it’s just ‘cause I’m a guy, and I’m a hetero, and she’s a woman. I don’t know what it would be, but that would be to me, you know, slightly more devastating. Though both would reduce me to, you know, a puddle of a human being.
[60:00] LG: Yeah. Yeah.
BL: I would just, yeah, I would implode. So, you know, I wanna get to, you know, your actual publication history, and then, you know, touch upon Arcadia, which is the new one. But like, you know, you struggled just like any writer does, in the early days, and like I want to say I read somewhere that, you know, you wrote two entire novels early on that you threw away, is that correct?
[60:26] LG: Yes, yeah I did. More than two, I think. But I mean, they were just trash. They were so bad. And one of them I actually had high hopes for, and I have these images from it sometimes, you know, sit up and say, “Hey.” But, no, I had to go through the suffering over early drafts to sort of teach myself how to write, and then eventually I got to my grad school program, and it taught me…it sort of whittled things down even more.
[1:00:56] But yeah, you know, you rarely find a writer who comes out of the gate as fast and strong as they can be, and so you need this time to work and work and work and struggle and cry and weep, and lie on the floor looking at the ceiling, and…
BL: Just running on your treadmill, just weeping.
LG: [laughs] I know. Believe it or not, it happens more than you could possibly imagine.
BL: No, I’ll tell ya, I’ll tell ya, right before we started talking, I’ve been saying this to myself all morning. I’ve been working, and I’ve been working fairly well, but at the same time, like the work, for whatever reason, left me in this state where I felt like I was almost, I was almost gonna cry.
[1:01:37] Like do you know what I’m saying? It was like this weird emotional state where I was like, “I don’t have anything to be sad about in particular, but like I just feel like emotionally raw in a way that, like, if somebody made a sudden noise, I might just start crying,” you know? [laughs] Like does that make any sense?
LG: Oh God, yeah. Well I mean, there’s the emotional state where you have to work yourself into in order to write things that are just emotionally devastating, but you also finished a big project, right? I mean, is that why, possibly, because you –
[1:02:05] BL: Well, I didn’t finish it, but I finished working for the day.
LG: [laughs] I thought you said you finished it.
BL: No, no. I wish I had finished it. That’s what you believed this whole time, you’re like, oh my God, he just –
LG: I did! I was like, why is he calling me, he should be drinking champagne.
BL: No, I would be weeping if that had happened. I would be weeping tears of joy. I’d be running around Los Angeles like, you know, throwing myself a private parade.
[1:02:30] But no, you know, it’s weird, it brings up that stuff, and, you know, I think it’s hopefully fairly common.
LG: Yeah, no, well, it’s certainly common for me. And you know, it’s not better during the times when you’re not working well. Right now I’m not working well, because I’m too anxious, but…And so I just think of all these hours passing without me doing anything of any note or merit at all. And it’s, that also is just an enormous emotional load, too, so.
[1:03:05] BL: But I mean, you’ve got Arcadia about to come out. I mean, it’s not like…You deserve to have, I think writers need to have this moment because you get so few of them. I mean, publication, in a lifetime…I mean, I guess some writers publish like crazy and they have like 50 books or something, but for most of us, it’s like, you know, over the course of a lifetime, it’s like, you know, somewhere between like 5 and 20 books.
BL: I don’t know, I’m just grabbing numbers out of the air, but that seems about right to me.
[1:03:31] So I think you need, after all the time you spent laboring in your sweat lodge, you need to have a moment, like you need to have your…you know, take a victory lap and like go enjoy this part of it, right?
LG: Right, well, but does anyone ever actually enjoy this part of it? I mean, let’s be honest, it’s so fraught. I don’t know. You’re positioning your baby in the middle of a football field for someone to either throw rocks or like lilies at it or something, you know?
[1:04:02] It’s not like…You’re getting ready to let go too, and I know it’s so immaterial and it’s all in my head, but I know that before a book is published, no matter how many people have read the ARC, it’s still mine in a way that after it’s published, it’s not, and it’s never going to be again. And, you know, for me, this time is just a mourning, a time of mourning, not necessarily a celebration, just because it’s not going to be my book anymore.
[1:04:37] I know you, I mean you have a daughter, right, and she’s how old? Fourteen months old?
LG: Okay, Eighteen months old, so she’s little, but do you remember when she turned one? And you’re like, “I have a daughter but she’s not a baby anymore. You know, she’s not like attached to us anymore.”
[1:04:58] So that’s what this time is to me, always, even though I know I should be so grateful and I should take this time to, you know, catch up on my reading or something, but instead I sit here and walk on the treadmill and think, “God, gotta get working, gotta get working, gotta get another project under my belt,” and do nothing.
BL: Yeah, no I always likened it, I likened it to like sending my, like when my first novel went out, it was like sending your kid to school on the first day and just like hoping it didn’t get its ass kicked. Like that’s how I felt. I was just like, I hope no one beats him up, you know?
[1:05:30] LG: Totally! [laughs]
BL: And everything negative that people say, it’s like, you know, your kid just got punched. It’s awful.
LG: [laughs] I know. Right! Right. It is, it is. And even if it gets kissed afterwards, whatever, it still got punched.
BL: Yeah, It still got punched. I don’t even know if I want anyone kissing my kid, I mean, come on. Keep your hands off my child! [laughs]
LG: [laughs] Stop! Right.
BL: But like, you know, on a positive note though, Arcadia has received far more lilies than punches, so far, right?
[1:06:01] LG: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Yes, definitely.
BL: So your work has received a lot of support. Stephen King was a huge early supporter. I mean, you’ve had a good ride, like in terms of like your early publication life. I mean, would you say that’s fair?
LG: That’s totally fair, and I know that when I say things like what I just said, I can sound ungrateful. And I’m so not ungrateful. I’m incredibly grateful, I’m also trying to say how it’s like an ambivalent blessing, in a way.
BL: Sure, sure.
[1:06:31] LG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I’ve had so much love, and good fortune too. Definitely.
BL: So with this novel, you know, before I let you go, I want to talk about like the theme, the theme of it. Like the theme of utopia, and I heard you actually mention this earlier when you were speaking about Cooperstown. But like broadly, like the book is about a guy who’s raised, you know, is commune the right word? Or like in this kind of like alternative community that’s trying to be utopia.
[1:07:04] And it’s about utopia and its aftermath, right? And it’s about kind of like countercultural living.
BL: And so like, you know…This is the way I imagine it working for you, in terms of your interior world, and I’d just love to hear you talk a little bit about it. But, you know, are you an idealist, and is this book like you psychologically trying to reconcile your idealistic tendencies with the actual world, especially now that you’re a parent, which I feel like is a kind of time in one’s life when that happens.
[1:07:33] Where you’re like, “Okay, I gotta get a little bit more serious about this as I’m now in charge of the well-being of this little person.” Or am I totally misreading all of this?
LG: You are so on, like a hundred and forty-three percent. What had happened was, this part of the narrative is always really interesting to me, because it only comes clear to me when I do talk like this, because there’s the narrative of the story and then there’s the narrative of how the story was written.
[1:08:05] But this particular book was written when I was pregnant with my first son. And I’m not a good pregnant person. I’m a very very hormonal and angry and sad pregnant person. And…
BL: Me too.
LG: Yeah? [laughs] I know! You know, the guys do get what their wives and partners get, unfortunately.
[1:08:33] But so I was just a mess. A terrible ugly mess. And I could feel myself going down into this spiral, this death spiral, which is an awful thing for, because you’ve got this kid growing in you and they absorb everything of you, and nobody wants to bring a child into the world where its mommy is just so unhappy.
[1:09:00] So I actually, I started doing research and reading because I wanted to pull myself out of this, and research does that for me. You know, reading things in a pointed way makes me start to think more deeply about the world that I’m living in. So I started to read about philosophical utopias, the ones that are generally in novels and books and things like that.
[1:09:29] But also about actual communes and intentional communities, and things that people have created in history. And a lot of themes popped out and kept recurring. And this book was, I mean, it is the least autobiographical book, by far, or story, of anything that I’ve ever written, but it is by far the most deeply personal, because there are incredible elements of happiness and unhappiness in it, and that comes directly from me and the way that I was handling the world.
[1:10:11] But there’s also this deep desire to find idealism again, and want to live in a world of idealism, and, you know, in a community. I was also, you know, I mean add on to the body dysmorphia and the hormones, I was also fairly new to Gainesville, and I write alone. You work alone in this rank and –
[1:10:38] BL: In this bug infested swamp. [laughs]
LG: [laughs] Bug infested swamp! And I knew nobody. I mean, I think I had one friend for the first two years I lived here. It was incredibly lonely. So this book was a desperate attempt to argue myself into belief in happiness and in the better part of human nature, and in community, and that community can be life-giving even if it falls apart.
[1:11:12] And in the things that I did research, most of the communities fall apart, and they do so because people overlook human nature, and particularly the ugly parts of human nature, the ungenerous parts, and the…frankly, the sex parts, and the greed, and things like that.
[1:11:37] And when they do fall apart, the children especially, who have not necessarily asked to be born into these communities, have to deal with the world outside. And I think that’s a very interesting sideways view of idealism, you know, what the ramifications are upon children. Even though the parents do have good intentions, what happens to the kids afterwards?
[1:12:05] So all of this, it was just a big long four-year war with myself to write this book. And, you know, what’s interesting is the first few drafts ended up much more dystopian, and much more dark. But it wasn’t right, and it wasn’t necessarily what I believed, and I think writers have to teach themselves through their books what they understand and believe.
[1:12:39] I mean, they don’t obviously know to begin with, or else they wouldn’t embark on this many-year process to finish this large colossal thing that they don’t really understand. So that’s sort of the birth narrative of Arcadia, and I ended up, you know, I ended up in a much better place after it.
[1:12:59] BL: I was gonna say, like what did you learn, I mean, you know, like at the end of it? Can you boil it down? I mean, I know that’s kind of like a tough question, but like do you have, do you have like a lesson or a take away from it all that you feel is solid?
LG: Well, I mean, I…So the problem with this book is that it raises way more questions than it answers. I don’t think it answers almost anything. But the thing that I came to is…having faith in humanity, especially, you know, things are really scary these days, and I think they probably always have been scary, but having faith in humanity is something that you have to work at. I mean…
[1:13:40] You can’t just let it go. You have to continuously feel hopeful and keep your hope alive by paying attention to the beautiful things that you can overlook. The moments that are beautiful, and recognize them and flag them and know them.
[1:14:02] And you know, I’m not gonna find a perfect place in Gainesville [laughs], like just in a personal way. There is no perfect place, but there’s a space within a human heart that can always work toward it. And this is something that I have to remind myself. I have to work for this. Like, you know? It’s not given to you. You have to work.
BL: Well, I think that’s a, I think that’s a wise note to end on.
[1:14:33] LG: Okay [laughs], sounds good.
BL: Yeah, no, it sounds like you came to a good place at the end of it all. And the book is called Arcadia. And Lauren, it’s been so fun talking with you, best of luck with everything, and, you know, I’ll be interested to see what you come up with in the years to come.
LG: Thanks so much, Brad. It’s been great to talk to you too.
* * *
[1:14:56] Okay guys, there you go, that’s the show. That’s Lauren Groff for the hour. Go get her new novel, it’s really good, it’s called Arcadia, and it’s available now from Hyperion. If you want to find her on the web, she’s at laurengroff.com, and Groff is spelled with two f’s at the end. She’s on the Twitter, and her handle is @legroff, that’s l-e-g-r-o-f-f. And she has a Facebook presence. This show has a website, it’s otherpeoplepod.com, it has a Twitter feed, @otherpeoplepod, I have a Twitter feed @BradListi, the show has a Facebook presence, and if you want to email me, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
[1:15:29] Thanks to Kill Rock Stars for the theme song, thanks to Valley Jones for the transitional music. And I hope I didn’t sound too pessimistic on the front end of this show, when I was talking about athletes and talent. I mean, you know, ultimately, it can’t be about that, right? It has to be about the love of the game, and the doing of the thing has to be the primary source of enjoyment. So even if you’re not Michael Jordan, you’re not the Michael Jordan of writers, as long as you’re having some fun with it and you like doing it, and you’re not torturing yourself too much, then by all means, continue.
[1:16:01] You know, because obviously not every basketball player is Michael Jordan. That should be said. You know, there have been guys in the NBA like Spud Webb and Vlade Divac. I think that’s how you pronounce that. People like that. It’s a mix, it’s a variety, and there is room for a few scrubs, right? So I just want to make sure that’s clear. It is a strange existence, and everybody is trying to do stuff and accomplish things, and get somewhere, and go someplace, and be someone, and win and not lose.
[1:16:34] And I kinda hate that. It kinda makes me ulcerous. It kinda makes me want to run very fast on the beach straight into the ocean and swim until I can’t swim anymore and then sink to the bottom of the ocean with both of my middle fingers extended heavenward. But of course I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna stay on the shore, and I’m gonna watch the waves crash onto the shore and I’m gonna watch the children play in the waves, as debris from Fukushima Daiichi washes onto the sand.
[1:17:02] Huh? How’s that for a positive note? You like that? All right, kinda edgy, kinda dark, back again next week! Please remember that an emotion is the body’s response to a thought, and please remember to appreciate the wonder of the accidental comedy. And who wants to be a, you know, who wants to be a shotputter anyway, right? Who gives a rat’s ass about the shot put?