Lauren Groff is the author of a short-story collection, Delicate Edible Birds, and three novels, including Arcadia (2012) and Fates and Furies (2015). Her work has appeared in magazines and journals such as the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Tin House, and One Story, as well as anthologies including The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and four editions of Best American Short Stories. Her latest essay, “Machado de Assis at the Rio Olympics,” appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of the SR. We asked her about working across genres, navigating place and scene, and her love for Tristram Shandy.
SR: You’re primarily a fiction writer. How do your process and approach differ when you turn your hand to nonfiction, as you have for our Winter issue?
Groff: Novels, short stories, and nonfiction all come from very different parts of my brain, and the approach differs massively between the three. I’ll live inside a novel for years, writing a great deal of junk, trying to feel my way to a tone or structure or even set of images that gives me the key to how to write the book. It’s a little like training for a marathon—it’s the daily work that matters most. I’ll usually have an idea for a short story for years, but won’t write it until it suddenly blazes so intensely it makes me unable to see the novel I’m working on (and I’m always working on at least one novel). I like to keep my energy for fiction, so I rarely do nonfiction, but will agree to it if it’s a book I’m interested in reviewing, or there’s been a topic nibbling at the back of my head, or if I just really like the editor the way I like Adam Ross—I have a hard time saying no to a friend. Then, it’s piecemeal, a great deal of research and note-taking, boiling down, over weeks, into some sort of shape. Nonfiction is much harder for me because I don’t have much fun doing it. That said, I am always ecstatic when the work is done.
SR: In the essay that appears in our Winter issue, you mention that you adore Tristram Shandy. Can you tell us about your first experience with the novel? How has your attitude towards the book changed since that encounter?
Groff: I loved Tristram Shandy from the moment I read it in a college course, and my appreciation has only grown deeper as I age: it seemed simply hilarious to me at first, but I’ve recently been reading the book as a profound and moving meditation on death. I try to reread it when I need a reminder that writing is joyous, that you can do anything in a novel, that we’re making it up as we go along.
SR: One apparent commonality between your fiction and nonfiction is a lively engagement with place; you’ve written essays about the Weeki Wachee mermaids, a long-dead Miami Beach street photographer, and the 2016 Rio Olympics, and created fiction haunted by New York communes and William Bartram’s Florida. How do you see the place of place in your writing?
Groff: I suppose I need to trick myself into believing I’m somewhere within a scene if I’m going to write it effectively. Also, my only superpower is visual. I can gauge correctly what container will fit whatever leftovers my family has, and can look at a space and see it with any modifications at all. Visual scene-setting, for me, is a part of gaining the authority to write whatever I’m sitting down to do.
SR: To pull back to your larger body of work for a moment: Mathilde, of Fates and Furies, operates as the hidden power behind her husband’s plays, at a steep emotional cost; in Arcadia, most of the female characters forge perilous, alienating worlds of their own; the unnamed protagonist of “Flower Hunters” withdraws into a cocoon of isolation from her husband and sons, as she attempts to regain emotional equilibrium. Could you talk about your explorations of the myriad—and sometimes self-destructive—ways in which women exercise agency in a world determined to deny it to them?
Groff: Without a doubt, this is a smarter question than the answer I’m going to give. But I think of fiction as a way of understanding, through the media of time and words, the way that any individual presses against the boundaries of the society in which she lives. That means that Huckleberry Finn’s personal drive for freedom presses up against his society’s vision of his status as a young person. Or Emma Bovary’s hunger for life and love meet a firm boundary in the expectations laid on her shoulders in her role as the wife of a village doctor. Women have always chafed at the tighter restrictions imposed upon them than are imposed upon men; writers of fiction are always invested in looking at moments of friction.
SR: You suggest, in “Machado de Assis at the Rio Olympics,” that humans are fortunate beings, in that we continually produce new “editions” of ourselves. That we get, in essence, many chances to try again—if not at what we’ve just failed to accomplish, than at something new and possibly better. I wonder, though, what limits you see on our capacity for change (mortality aside); do you see this constant self-revision and flux as uniformly a positive thing?
Groff: I’m not sure that we can put mortality to the side, to be honest—it seems a condition of life that the living thing at hand is constantly responding to environmental pressures and changes, yes? If we stop growing as people, it means that we stop recognizing the flux in the world around us, and we’re essentially dead. Not all change is good, but the ability to adapt to external change is evidence of being awake and present and invested in the world and the people around us. All this to say that not all constant self-revision and flux are uniformly positive (I had dinner two nights ago with a woman who won’t stop having plastic surgery, and that night I had a constriction nightmare), but I think constant self-assessment and knowing when and how to change are essential.