Lauren Groff

Interviewed by Emma Smith-Stevens

In your writing, history is brought into the present moment of your narrative through memory, documents, and by giving voice to ghosts. What philosophical or personal beliefs underlie that choice?

When you try to get to the most vibrant and dynamic way of dealing with history, sometimes the best way is to access actual documents or to come up with the voices of characters who lived through the time you’re writing about. I have a fascination with history; I see it as something mutable, gorgeously imperfect. I do sometimes get into trouble with historians because I play around with a lot of historical facts, but I think that’s the prerogative of the fiction writer: if a fact in a story or novel is false for its time, but is right for the emotional truth of the piece, the fiction writer has the right to decide whether to include it or not.

Was there a moment where you decided to take the leap into having ghosts in your stories?

To be honest, there was a time I was worried. As a young person who is trying to be literary, whatever that means, the implications of using elements of the fantastical or the gothic may brand you as a genre writer. With Monsters of Templeton in particular, I had written four completely different drafts of that story, from different perspectives. The hope with writing is that you can marry the mode of the storytelling to the story being told, and most of the time if what I do doesn’t succeed, it’s because I haven’t found the right way to tell the story that needs to be told. The first three drafts of Monsters weren’t getting to the truth I wanted to get to. I was exhausted and was so convinced that I was writing Monsters without hope of publishing it, that on the fourth draft, I gave up caring about what other people were going to say. It was liberating, and I was able to put in the way that I saw my hometown in my childhood, which was full of ghosts. I was an imaginative little girl with horrible eyesight, and so I saw ghosts everywhere; I knew there was a monster in the lake because I saw it. I don’t regret, now, using elements of genre. It’s the only way I could find to write that particular story.

Clearly your work involves a lot of research. Can you talk about the research process and how it intersects with the writing process?

I try to have my butt in the chair seven days a week, for at least an hour. You can’t always be blessed by the muse. She doesn’t always come down with her little fairy wand and tap you on the head. A lot of times after half an hour I’ll give up and read something. That’s the time that I find to read esoteric stuff that I find fascinating. Collections of Nordic fairytales for instance—I’m heavily into that right now. Biographies of women who just astound me. A lot of times, stories come from these texts that aren’t related to anything I’m working on at the moment: I’ll carry a detail or an idea with me for years, and one day that idea will interact with something that I read and explode into a different story. I think writers should look as far and wide as possible for inspiration, and not feel that they have to be bound to whatever it is that they’re working on at the moment. I also love more targeted, project-related research. It’s the best way to procrastinate. For my first novel, I went to the library for a whole year and read all the [relevant] books I could find, not necessarily because I wanted to be faithful to every single fact. But you need to have the flavor of the time, and you need to know when to bend the truth in fiction in order to make a more real fictional world.

Was there anything about your hometown that you came across in your research for Monsters of Templeton that really surprised you?

I don’t know if you can call this research, but I read all of James Fenimore Cooper. I’d read his work when I was twelve or thirteen, because I was starting to get an inkling of the fact that I wanted to write, and he was the closest thing to a Cooperstown writer I knew about. Whether or not I’d be crazy enough to try to write professionally I didn’t know then. I found Cooper’s work incredibly boring at that time. But when I went back over his work later, I found that he was an astounding nature writer. Who would’ve guessed? His characters aren’t well-developed, but it doesn’t matter. His stories are entertaining, and often very beautiful.

The stories in Delicate Edible Birds are very diverse both in term of their historical settings and the voices through which the stories are told, yet there’s a sense of unity to the collection. Is that something you deliberately set out to achieve? Did you hold onto a sense of the common thread as you wrote the stories, or did it just happen that way?

It is interesting to watch first story collections come together. In my case, I had stories I’d been writing for twelve years, some I really liked, and some that I didn’t. I had a pretty large pool of stories I could have pulled from, so I decided after reading the ones that I liked the best that there were a number of submerged thematic things going on. I didn’t write any new stories in order to complete the collection. But in terms of balance and harmony, I superstitiously believe that nine stories in a collection is the right number of stories. I believe that the whole collection has to have an arc, too. More energy was put into editing the stories and figuring out the order of them than actually writing new work in order to come into a theme.

You often write about what it means to be home for very different characters in very different circumstances. How would you define “home”?

My understanding of “home” has changed since I left Cooperstown. Now “home” is where my son and husband are. It doesn’t have to be here in Florida—in fact I have a very hard time thinking of Florida as home. But the feeling of being safe and having the ability to be honest is at the heart of it. That said, the times that are richest in my life in terms of fiction are the times I’m in exile. I went to grad school in Madison, Wisconsin, and I love that city, it’s a fabulous city, but I knew I wasn’t going to be there forever. It was an incredibly productive time in my life because I was an outsider and there’s something rich about being in a place that’s temporary. Sometimes I steal those moments. Sometimes I’ll stay in a hotel room and I’ll write all night, because I’m outside of my life and it feels so wonderful to be cut free from the dailiness of life.

Lauren Groff’s story “Eyewall” appears in Subtropics 11–12.