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Literature : Interview

Patrick Somerville and Lauren Groff chat about hallucinatory feelings and Groff’s new novel Arcadia.

Patrick Somerville & Lauren Groff.

Having missed each other by a few years in the University of Wisconsin’s English Department—Lauren Groff went to graduate school there, and I haunted the same hallways as an undergraduate half a decade before—she and I decided this spring that it was time to properly realign the chronologies of fate and double-interview one another about writing, monsters, babies, and bourbon. We both had books on the way and it seemed like a rather pleasurable way to use up several hours. The following is that conversation; it was conducted via Google Docs, its two participants often huddled in different hotel rooms across the country. It felt like it was conducted via Badger Bowl back in Madison.

And I would be remiss if I failed to point out that since we began this conversation, Lauren’s new novel Arcadia has been raved about in virtually every imaginable venue, and for very good reason. There’s a mysterious electromagnet built into exceptional novels, isn’t there? Built of whispered conversations below the conversations, constructed by the quiet confidence of an authorial intellect so sharp and strong that it has to make a world for itself. She will be embarrassed that I’ve said this, because that’s just how she is, but anyone who’s read Arcadia knows that it vibrates with that special, hard-to-pin-down power.

Patrick Somerville Lauren, to begin: since I last saw you at AWP in Chicago, I have been haunted by your choice to sing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” in the final round of Karaoke Idol, the conference’s most undignified literary event. Eight weeks out from the competition and looking back, do you feel angry about taking second place? Do you blame the judges, who had been drinking bourbon for several hours at that point?

Lauren Groff What are you saying? That I lack dignity? Please. I raise my pinkie finger to sip my tea when I’m alone. “Sweet Caroline” was clearly strategic, you know. By that ridiculous time of the night I’d lost whatever terrible voice I’d started with, and I wanted people to sing so loudly they couldn’t hear me. It almost worked! Jump-dancing was the only way to go. I mean, why take yourself too seriously? Besides, I also knew I couldn’t match Ben Percy’s insane rumble-of-God voice, so I went the transparently crowd-pleasing direction. Which makes for bad literary fiction but not terrible karaoke. Anyway, you were a judge: are you angry with yourself for choosing Percy over me? Truly, you should be.

PS The audience was an unruly mob and I barely escaped with my life; I had no influence over their choices. Some of the later rounds are hazy to me.

LG Oh, sure. You know, a writer gets in trouble when he blames his decisions on the audience. Anyway, not to change gears too abruptly, but we’re busy people with a billion things on our plates, et cetera, and so let’s talk shop. I read This Bright River on my way to Los Angeles about a week ago, and just couldn’t stop until I hit the end. In a very real way, your book is a thriller. I don’t think I give too much away when I say that you start on a frosty Madison winter’s eve with a kidnapping that, with extreme skill, you are able to keep alive and unresolved in the reader’s mind until the last pages of the book. At the same time, I’d say that this novel is character-based, which is a euphemism for the somewhat amorphous genre called literary fiction. Talk to me about the tensions inherent in reconciling these two genres, if you had any, or your overarching meta-thoughts about said tensions.

PS I think one tension is just that I feel tense when I’m talking about genre. Don’t you? I love it; I fear the conversation. I have a healthy skepticism of the designations, but I will admit: I do see the utility of some clean lines as well—something to do with helping readers find what kinds of experiences, or maybe even what kinds of distinct clusters of feelings, they’re most looking for from their books and stories at any given moment. That’s fair. But this thing you notice, this tension between amorphous literary fiction and something more action-driven and suspense-based, is also just a reflection of who I am as a reader, and what I love, and how I grew up as a reader, and how I just really respond to the idea of a love story mixed up with a mystery and then everything crossed a little with a novel of ideas, plus or minus a few brain teasers, maybe some (gasp) sex. Why are there not more character-driven rom-com brain-based action-thrillers, anyway? You yourself say that jump-dancing is sometimes the way to go, right? How can any novel not have a chase scene with a flashback inside of the chase? That’s pretty much everything I want right there.

Also, another thing: aren’t books the last place for these kinds of stories—mixed stories, stories that hit unusual scatter-patterns of brain and heart and gut—? Don’t people who write books need to be looking for new recombinations in order to keep books vibrant and alive? Isn’t that what literary fiction should be? I wonder sometimes.

A lot of my love for different kinds of novels got squashed by my own misguided sense, in college and then in graduate school, that all fiction that was not literary fiction was not serious fiction. “Serious” is a tricky word in this context, and moreover, squashing one’s love for something is not healthy when you’re trying to make art. It felt good to let rip a little with this book, but to do so within the confines of realism. I guess that’s what I’m saying.

I finished Arcadia last night. Let me, with difficulty, refrain from generally screaming about how good it is and ask you a question that’s related to this: how important do you think the question What is going to happen next? should be to someone reading your work? Or how important is that question to you, when you’re writing? It’s a marginalized question and a powerful question, and I could feel you pinging me with it as your protagonist, Bit, grew up. But I was also continuously haunted by this other question, a question that was more like How is Bit going to feel next? So maybe ignore my first question and talk about how the emotional experience of a character can become a kind of drama for the audience?

LG To start with one of your first questions, I also feel tense when I talk about genre, but mostly because I’m a mule-headed, obstinate son-of-a-gun and hate the feeling of being boxed in, and there’s nothing more insidious than being told that you are or are not a certain kind of writer. I may be hyper-sensitive to this because I’m a woman and it appears that, even at the dawn of the 21st century, when people look at women writers, they see woman first and everything else second; the highbrow version of the creep in high school who stares at your boobs when he talks to you. For instance, in every single interview for Arcadia I’ve given, I’ve been asked about being a mother, when you don’t see comparable questions asked of father-writers. It all makes me want to scream. And so I very deliberately play with genres, not only because I think a story needs to be told in the best way that it can be told, and it’s dangerous to your story if you ignore its needs, but also because I refuse to be only what you say I am.

I agree with you when you say that “literary fiction,” whatever the hell that means, is a place for the strange combinations, the thrilling intersections. I’d add “good literary fiction” is like that: literary fiction, when done without imagination, is its own rule-bound word-ghetto, where there are a lot of cornstalks and ravens and pondering the wintry landscape over a window dreamily befogged by chamomile tea. And it’s much less fun than what is considered “light” fare, which is clearly why it keeps being shunted toward oblivion, because who needs to read pretty sentences about people who do nothing? I’d rather watch Mad Men, too.

Your questions “what is going to happen next,” and “how is a character going to feel next,” are, I think, a natural extension of the discussion we were having about the literary nature of a book, primarily because when I know that a book has merit, both questions hold tremendous weight. I need to care about the characters deeply; I not only need to know what happens in action external to the character, I need to know what happens inside the characters. When outside developments swamp the characters, it makes for fast reading but doesn’t engage the head or heart; when internal developments swamp the action, you may as well be reading poetry, because at least in poetry, you’re told what you need to know in a far shorter expanse of time, and usually with a lot more humor. When a book has equal arcs of action and emotion: that’s the closest definition I can make for literary fiction.

Beyond that, I’m not sure I fully understand your question: “talk about how the emotional experience of a character can become a kind of drama for the audience?” So I’m going to bounce it back to you. Please answer yourself in terms of Ben and Lauren, your main characters.

PS I thought about these matters all day, so I’m sorry in advance for the text-dump. On the train, though, for example, somewhere south of Addison, I wondered if there wasn’t a third question we should add to the mix, if this truly has become an easygoing, spiked-lemonade-sipping quest to define literary fiction: not what will happen or how will they feel but what language will she (you, author, Lauren) use next? Page after page, Arcadia surprised me with pure and raw language, with its whim, with its syntactic idiosyncrasies, and yet none of these flourishes felt superfluous. To me that’s the rub; experiments nevertheless feeling pragmatic. “Reborn language” was a phrase that came into my head once—I believe this was after you were gleefully verbifying a noun, as you are wont to do. There is real excitement there, a real kind of heart-thumping excitement that is—glub glub—sadly marginalized except amongst the real nerdlings, and for that I love them all. What Ben Marcus is talking about when he talks about “language as a physical substance with deviant powers.” Arcadia’s success this spring has been bracing because it seems to have deviant linguistic powers. Ben Lerner’s book feels that way to me, too. As does Amelia Gray’s. I have never really liked the false, binary nature of the typical Vanilla Narrative Realism Book versus Corkscrewing Language Mindfuck Book debate that seems to resurface again and again all over the internet, so I appreciate strange mixtures, and while I would tend to fall on the Vanilla Narrative Realism side of that, I snarl at being categorized as well. (Although I feel that I should state the obvious, even though it’s obvious: as a white male novelist I have occupied an unfairly privileged position from the get.) Anyhow, though: again with the mixtures and the pushing back.

That’s the kind of thing I was talking about with emotional arcs, too, when I got confusing with my question. (Let’s both blame this on my baby crying while I was trying to finish up that last post, shall we?) I asked about the emotional experience of the character becoming drama. I think in This Bright River I was trying to have it all ways a little, have the two story arcs of two people slowly turn into one story arc, but keep the emotional lives of Ben and Lauren distinct, separate. Get everything that I could. All the things. Greedy author. I think what I was trying to say in my last entry is that I think, in the books that I love, the What is going to happen question can oftentimes be supplanted by What is going to happen to *his heart* in a kind of amazing, breathtaking mid-story switcheroo, then it switches back, then it switches back, and these questions can begin to dance with one another in the background of the reader’s mind, behind the story, and when these hermeneutical handoffs occur within novels, and when they are handled expertly, there is simply no more exciting art form than literature. Take Gatsby, for example: there is a perfect elegance to the causal developments, to what happens, and Jay Gatsby’s end in that swimming pool after the car accident is basically perfect, plot-wise. And yet when I think of Gatsby, I don’t think of him getting gunned down; I think of him walking out of Nick’s carriage house and then back in through the other door, pretending he hadn’t just been in there. Superfluous moments, I suppose, but not in the context of the emotional stories. Yes and no. The inside and the outside, again. I find it very dramatic to watch a writer shift from one to the other. I’m sorry I just now used Gatsby.

What is a television show you watch that nobody else watches? Why do you watch it? Also: what did you grow up reading? Does reading ever feel as vivid, powerful, terrifying, and intense to you as it did when you were 11? How do we get that hallucinatory feeling back, Lauren?

Also: pancakes or prose poems? I say pancakes.

LG Wait a second. After that long, gorgeous defense of the nuclear melange, now you’re getting dichotomous? Do we really have to choose? I say both, because I’m a gourmand. Pancakes and prose poems, at the same time, aka 8:30 on Sunday morning with the baby taking a nap and the toddler engrossed with his toys, and a little bit of time to drink coffee on the front porch and gobble up my pancake-prose poems (A writer I know once said he wants to “Get everything that I could. All the things.” He is wise).

Two additional protests, because that appears to be my role in life: 1) You are nuts if you think you fall on the Vanilla Narrative Realism side of thing. One of the things that stunned me with This Bright River was how you were so easily able to adapt your language to the scene. You have passages about John Muir that are long and tangled and lush and so appropriate for your subject. Your sentences in the screamingly fraught sections, which I won’t ruin by enumerating (though, oh my god, I really want to talk about them), are somehow both taut and brittle. You have mindfuck language, though you are maybe a bit less loud about it. 2) I think there’s another issue at stake here, too: with the grand exception of high modernists like James Joyce or Gertrude Stein, whose strain is apparent in every sentence (it’s part of their point), I don’t think a writer ever really knows if her language is unusual when she’s in the act of writing. You just find your music and surf it. And then you listen harder in revision.

You asked, “What is a television show you watch that nobody else watches?” I don’t have a television, not because I’m a ridiculous snob, though I am, but because I’m a complete narrative junkie and would never write a word or leave the house if I had a television. I have no self-control. In hotels, I look up and it’s three in the morning, and I’ve been watching house-flipping channels for the past six hours. And the question is funny because even the least popular television shows, the 11:00 pm unfunny sitcoms destined for early moribundity, are, in terms of audience, far more successful than the kinds of novels we write. If a television show had 100,000 watchers, it’d be a miserable failure. If a literary novel sold that many copies, it’d be a reasonable success. But one that I watch whenever I’m morose in a hotel room is Doomsday Preppers. Which I’d love to see as Doomsday Preppies; people socking away their Madewell jeans and boat shoes and Anais Anais for the coming apocalypse.

You asked, “Why do you watch it?” Because I’m fixated on anything apocalyptic.

You asked, “Also: what did you grow up reading?” Everything, everything. Fairy tales and O. Henry and Nancy Drew and whatever books I bought at the library sale. Everything. I was the shyest creature on the planet. Books were my real life.

You asked, “Does reading ever feel as vivid, powerful, terrifying, and intense to you as it did when you were 11?” Yes, yes, yes. Rarely, but yes. This is why I am always so depressed by the newest hot YA novels. I get the feeling that if I’d read them as an actual young adult, I’d have the intense emotional experience that everyone else is having and that I so infrequently have these days, ever since my further reading has left me incapable of appreciating their fucking awful prose.

You asked, “How do we get that hallucinatory feeling back, Lauren?” Shrooms.

I would like to talk to you about your use of Bartolomé de Las Casas and his A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. I think you were very subtle, here. There are very fine woven strands of naturalism throughout This Bright River, with the aformentioned John Muir sections, also, but de Las Casas was a simple priest who was appalled by the way the Spanish conquistadors tortured and devastated the human population of the West Indies. I was interested in your juxtaposition of deep human drama with Lauren and Ben, and these further strands of historical naturalism/human naturalism, and have my own theories about their presence in the book. But because you’re here to ask, and my theories are usually 80% wrong: what is their deeper significance in your narrative?

PS I find this—“In hotels, I look up and it’s three in the morning, and I’ve been watching house-flipping channels for the past six hours.”—to be incredibly endearing, not only because I just watched seven episodes of Bering Sea Gold and did so with no self-awareness whatsoever, but because narrative is one of the few drug addictions out there that seems not just reasonable, but benevolent, and a drug addiction we should be promoting more thoroughly in the school system. You’ve pulled off the impossible with your answer: you’ve made a case for not having a television that both rings true and doesn’t make me feel like a shallow person for loving mine. Thank you.

This—“I was the shyest creature on the planet.”—seems utterly impossible, considering what I saw at Karaoke Idol, but this—“Books were my real life.”—I think was true for me, too, depending on the era. I ask the question because I have been worrying for my son, who is a small muffin of only five months, and I worry how exactly he will get his story fix in 2025, assuming he becomes a junkie like his parents. I am not reactionary about the changing technology of storytelling, but I do fear that some particular technologies of our time might be damaging to the depth of experience and the, uh, amplitude of immersion readers achieve. Perhaps that is a little paradoxical, as he will no doubt be submerged in some kind of neuro-conductive, electro-chemical gel bath every time he “reads." Sorry for being a dinosaur, son! Hello, it’s your father from the past! Perhaps it’s our futures—all humans born before the rise of the Internet—I’m really worrying about. We are a lot doomed to be very strange shepherds, us folk. One day we too will be extinct.

I asked about reading as a kid because of Bit, and his discovery of Grimm, and the way that the book informs who he is and helps him to grow and provides him with another world when he seems to need one. Will you talk more about child emotions and representing children and doing it in a way that makes sense to an adult mind? I loved Bit so much—I found little Bit to be so sweet, so careful, so vulnerable. The elemental, emotional chaos of childhood—utterly terrifying at times—is captured perfectly in the early part of Arcadia. I don’t know how you did it and I don’t want to know, entirely. As Louis Armstrong liked to say, whatever you can tap your foot to counts as good music. But I do want to know your thoughts on child characters, and how you avoided being precious with this book.

But I’m avoiding talking about Las Casas. You can’t tap your foot to Las Casas. I think I’m avoiding it because the inclusion of that text, or at least a big conversation about that text, is a complicated matter for me and not one that I fully understand. I will say a couple of things, though, the first being that I myself have been haunted and terrorized by that text since I read it in college, not just because of the violence, but because of Las Casas’s ability to seemingly peer through the heavy velvet curtain of his own era’s ideological take on what was happening and understand it in terms of straightforward human suffering, whereas virtually nobody around him was able to do the same thing. (Why? Reading, I think. Again. Really. Books. He was a reader, simple or not, and it was a deep and sustained reading of Ecclesiastes, in combination with deduction, that helped him develop his perspective on Hispaniola. I am awed our ability to get so far out of ourselves, given a text, some principal, and a little time to develop a perspective. But this is of course also dangerous.) We both joke about the drug of narrative and the hallucination it provides, but A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies is a living nightmare made out of text and something I don’t enjoy reading but something that should be reanimated and kept alive and translated into our idiom, and translated into the next, and so on. I didn’t like writing that passage, and you can kind of see Ben turning green—or at least Wayne worrying about Ben turning green—at the moments when I was starting to feel sick. But I felt it had to be in there. I thought of Las Casas, John Muir, and Wayne as a kind of triumvirate in the book, and I don’t think Wayne is comprehensible as a character without that section. Up until that point in the book he has been a thought, a wraith, a missing presence, and so when he finally showed up in the text, I figured I was going to have to make it count. But I also think that the Problem of Las Casas—which is essentially the Problem of Evil—is what Ben has been struggling with throughout the book, too. I wanted the reader to leave that section feeling disturbed, but also feeling that whatever has gone wrong for Ben in the fifteen years since he had this epic conversation with his cousin, the seeds of that life drift are right here, in both the Las Casas parts and the other parts. Wayne’s claim is that white people in America—all white people in America, and particularly white men in America—are continuing to live out that same legacy of 16th century brutality. That white men, like it or not, are necessarily a part of that army. Ben disagrees, but it takes him a long-ass time to figure out why. That conversation is a conversation of the book, I hope.

I could go on, because I think there is even more, but there is something truly sad about a novelist discussing what he thinks something in his book might mean. The best laid plans. We can design and build and launch the ship, but only hope it reaches port.

You sound like you’ve read both Las Casas and plenty of Muir. What do you think of those two cats?

LG Okay, so I danced around answering this for some time because, while Ben may disagree that white people in America—all white people in America—are continuing to live out that same legacy of 16th century brutality, there are huge events in the book (which I can’t talk about, gah!) that end up kind of proving Wayne’s point. My theory was 100% what you have above [aside: a great relief because I retain a lot of the inordinate shame that chilled my bones the very first day that I—from a small-town public school—walked into an English class at my chichi college, and discovered that there were kids my age who had learned about Derrida and Lacan in prep school in tenth grade and were comfortable using words like “hermeneutic” and “modalities,” therefore causing me to spend the rest of my four years feverishly trying to make up ground, a feeling from which I still frequently suffer; eg., no I haven’t read a whole lot of Las Casas and Muir, only college textbook amounts, which is pitiful, forgive me! And end slideshow of self-pity]. And yet, while I identified so closely with Ben, because there was such brutality in the text, I felt that the events of the narrative overrode Ben’s disagreement. I felt as if the larger consciousness—which has to be yours, the creator’s—was doing two things at once, the literary equivalent of Tuvan throat singing, where Ben’s simpler take of the world was inverted by a hugely ironic narrative hand, thereby showing the immense holes in his perception of things. We shall agree to mostly agree, here, because, you’re right, there is always something terrible about explaining your own work, and I would punch anyone in the coccyx who made me do it, and I’m sorry I asked that question.

About writing children. I don’t know anything about how to do it, truly. It’s very, very hard to toe the line between earnestness and sentiment, and children are automatically figures of sentiment—only monsters hate a fat and happy baby, and only the people with the worst lives look back at childhood without a pang or two of nostalgia. I did my best to be imagistic and sensory, because I don’t think a five-year-old can analyze the events that happen to him. And though I wrote the first draft of the whole shebang in the first person, I threw it out and rewrote it from scratch in the third person. This gave me just enough distance for plausible deniability: Bit could notice things, but the close narrative voice is the one doing the verbalizing. And I wanted just enough space for the most important person in the narrative—the reader—to be doing most of the analysis.

Of all the things I worry about, and they are legion, I don’t worry about our children getting their narrative fix. They will, even if it’s not via the paper codex. Narrative is encoded in our DNA. It’s why we grew smart enough to spread over the earth and generally fuck the pooch ten ways to Sunday. There will be fewer physical books, which the fetishist in me mourns a little, but I think physical children’s books will always be around because of the cuddle-factor, and there will always be people who resist electronic reading. I do worry about losing the deeply democratic nature of the physical book—how cheap and widespread they are now, allowing almost anyone to pick one up at random and begin reading—and how expensive and anti-democratic book technology is. I also, frankly, will resist the way that books will be created—as social-media-type loci, where reading is a community event. I love that books, unplugged, are a communion between two brains. That one brain can be so fully alive when physically absent—that you can read a book while the writer is going about her life, writing a new book, even rotting in the ground—is one of the most astonishing miracles of humanity. Which brings me back to why books are so vital to me: I truly was the shyest creature in the world. I still am. Booze helps. I think painful introversion is common for our type, and leads to the kind of life most richly spent alone in ill-lit rooms.

Patrick Somerville’s second novel, This Bright River, will be out in June. He lives in Chicago with his wife and son. He is @patrickerville, and his website is patricksomerville.com.

Lauren Groff is the author of The Monsters of Templeton, Delicate Edible Birds, and Arcadia, which was just released in March. www.laurengroff.com