I first met Lauren Groff when we both attended the South Carolina Book Festival several years ago. Her first novel The Monsters of Templeton had just been published to critical and popular acclaim. One night at the festival, my wife and I had a lovely dinner with Groff and a wonderful mix of poets, crime novelists, SF writers, and memoirists. The interesting, varied conversation bounced from topic to topic, giving each of us reports from other lands, in a sense. What I liked about Groff is that she not only enjoyed this diversity but seemed to revel in it, a characteristic that comes through clearly in her fiction as well. Her work exists in a unique space that sometimes partakes of the fantastical, sometimes not, as well as a hard-to-define luminous quality and an incisive curiosity about the world.
After Monsters and the short story collection Delicate Edible Birds, Groff is now back with Arcadia, a novel that alters course for the author once more while exhibiting the same sureness of voice and complexity of character found in her prior fiction. Arcadia tells the story of an agrarian, utopian community established in the 1960s through the eyes of Bit, the first boy born in Arcadia. The opening passage has a lovely rhythm to it:
The women in the river, singing. This is Bit's first memory, although he hadn't been born when it happened. Still, the road winding through the mountains was clear to him, the rest stop with the yellow flowers that closed under the children's touch. It was dusk when the Caravan saw the river greening around the bend and stopped there for the night. It was a blue spring evening, and cold.
The tale spinning out from there follows three generations in the commune, always with Bit at the center. Groff effortlessly conveys both external and internal pressures on the commune during its rise and its inevitable fall. Central to Arcadia, too, is Bit's lifelong troubled love affair with a young woman named Helle.
The novel has received excellent reviews from Publishers Weekly, USA Today, and the New York Times Book Review, among others"”and with good reason. Arcadia succeeds in being both personal and having a wider scope. The "raw beauty" of the prose, as the NYT put it, has an almost hypnotic effect, in part because there's no hint of clichÃ© at the paragraph level. The details alone will captivate readers, not to mention the larger story. The novel has what you might call a kind of dreamlike clarity.
Recently, I interviewed Groff via email to get a sense of her career to-date and to ask her about the process of writing Arcadia. To start, I was especially interested to know about the difference between writing her first novel and her second.
"I wrote The Monsters of Templeton as a quiet unknown, during my MFA years, though I never did workshop the novel," she told me. "I was unmarried, childless, filled with energy and ambition and the time to work fourteen-hour days. I was deeply happy during that time. I began Arcadia when I was waiting for Monsters to be published, and in the meantime, had been married, had moved to Gainesville, a place where I knew nobody, and was horribly pregnant, meaning darkly pregnant, full of anxiety and insomnia and fear of apocalypse."
Groff meant Arcadia to be "an antidote to everything. I wanted to counter my loneliness by dwelling for hours in a day in an energetic community, my downward spiral by thinking about happiness and human mystery. The urgencies of the book were equal but different: for Monsters, I longed to write a love-letter to my hometown, and for Arcadia, I wanted to write one for humanity."
Although it can be difficult for a writer whose first novel makes such a splash to escape reader expectations, Groff said, "My impulse is always to write against what was expected of me. I choose to not be identified as any particular kind of writer: I am not a woman writer, I'm not a fantasy writer, I'm not a realist, I'm not a fabulist. I am all of these things or none of them, depending on the dictates of the story. That means, here, if there were monsters and genealogies in my first novel, there would be communes and pandemics in the next."
The "antidote to everything" that was Arcadia had an unusual initial spark: reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. "[I read it] in the earliest days of my pregnancy, when I was ill and lonely and sad. This is a very bad book for a pregnant lady, not least because of the roasted and cannibalized baby that appears halfway through the narrative. Arcadia was my four-year fight against the cynicism and despair that that book first kindled in me." (Books she reread while writing Arcadia, "whose influence didn't make their mark as deeply as I would have wanted them to" included Middlemarch by George Eliot, Light Years by James Salter, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, Paradise Lost by John Milton, and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.)
Novels "build slowly, almost architecturally," for Groff, and Arcadia was no exception. "There's a long process of reading and note-taking, then a longer process of physical research. In this case, that meant visiting for short stints the places where various intentional communities had lived and talking, sans recording device, to people who have lived in them."
The process also includes "long character explorations, twenty pages apiece for the major characters, and much of the time little of what I know makes it into the final text." Groff says she always loves her characters "because every single one is a piece of me. But"¦I don't always like them. That said, I love my children, but when my three-year-old punches his one-year-old brother in the eye, I don't particularly like him at that moment, either."
In addition to the character explorations, Groff makes "maps of the landscape and maps of relationships between characters. I write many drafts of the actual novel in longhand before I ever commit the words to my computer. I write many post-computer drafts. When I dismantle one section or begin from scratch, it usually means I have to rewrite huge swaths of other sections." This description of process, however, doesn't speak to some of the personal intangibles. Nothing specifically autobiography influenced Arcadia, but Groff noted that "Hannah's sadness is my own, and Bit resembles my big boy, Beckett, and I have a longing for community."
Arcadia gains some of its power from being written in the present-tense. Although Groff said she did explore past-tense in early drafts, she soon found the book "needed the present tense for a number of reasons: one, I was skipping from time period to time period, and I wanted each section to feel equally close and present to the reader. And, two, the final section was in 2018, and the point-of-telling"”the time from which the story is told when one uses the past tense"”would have been artificial in that scenario, because it's only now 2012."
Given that she did have to imagine her community over such a long period of time, I asked her if she thought communes enter a decaying orbit almost from inception. "I don't; I do. I believe human enterprise, all of human enterprise, is destined for decay from its very inception. We were made to die, but that doesn't mean that life isn't extraordinary, mysterious, beautiful, full of nobility and generosity, while we live. It doesn't mean that we can't leave a better world behind us. This is the stance that Arcadia, after four long years, ended up arguing itself into, which seems a deeply humanist position."
Groff describes herself as an "optimist," but in extrapolating the rise and decline of an entire community she needed to conjure up not just the positive, but also the negative. What, I wondered, does Lauren Groff fear, and how does it come out in her writing?
"I fear too much. I am practically skinless, which means I live my life in perpetual anxiety. I fear for my children's future with global warming and pandemics and the end of the age of oil and the generalized idiocy of people who deliberately or ignorantly misunderstand Darwinism as a way to be personally greedy and unkind. I fear automobiles and airplanes and sinkholes in the limestone under my Florida house; I fear snakes and palmetto bugs. Within myself, I fear losing humility and gratitude and kindness to those who are most vulnerable in our society, I fear complacency, and I fear my own rage, which is the boiling kind. My fiction is a way to harness these fears, to explore them, and try to articulate the mysterious and inarticulable."
You can catch Groff reading from Arcadia at events in Atlanta, Little Rock, and Los Angeles during the month of April. She will also be attending the University of Central Florida Book Festival, March 30-31.