I’d been waiting to read another novel by Lauren Groff ever since I finished her first, The Monsters of Templeton, a genealogy-detective story which also happens to include an enormous lake monster and sentences so beautiful you just want to weep. That promising debut, however, could not prepare me for the brilliance and wisdom of Arcadia, Groff’s recently-released second novel. I was wholly swept up in this story about, among other things, a man who is raised on a commune; I would’ve read it faster were it not for the stunning prose that I wanted, like a fine meal, to savor. Groff’s novel is so richly imagined that every word, every detail, feels true. She is one of the most talented writers working today.
The Millions: I was immediately drawn to Bit as a narrator–he’s sensitive, thoughtful, a keen observer of his surroundings, sweet, and tiny. Can’t get much more loveable than that. (He also seems an antidote to another fictional boy, Kevin, from one of my favorite books, We Need to Talk About Kevin–and I think, as a mother of a son, I needed that!) I really enjoyed being in Bit’s world, his perspective. Was he always the person to tell this story? How do you feel a different member of Arcadia might have altered our perception of it?
Lauren Groff: Bit was always the person to tell the story, even if he didn’t begin as the character he ended up being by the last draft. I started this book when I was pregnant with my first son Beckett; from the beginning, I knew there was going to be a child’s point-of-view in the first part. That said, Bit was at first a girl, primarily because almost every point-of-view character I’ve ever written up to then was female. Then Beck was born, and suddenly the character had to be a boy, and he grew into a fuller life as my son did. This book is equally Bit’s mother’s story–Hannah’s story–and even though she and I are similar in a lot of ways, I found Bit’s perspective to be more interesting, his loss more keen. When Arcadia falls apart, Bit knows nothing of the world beyond, really, and has to go into it as an innocent, which seemed utterly terrifying to me. (As a side-note, I love Lionel Shriver [holy hell!].)
TM: I was impressed with how language of this book shifted, grew more mature, as the book progressed, as Bit aged. Also, there’s almost a groovy rhythm to the prose early on that reflects the lifestyle of the commune. Later on, the prose is far more subdued. Was this intentional, and how did you calibrate the perspective with each section?
LG: It’s hard to say how intentional the shift in language was–I write from the gut a lot. That said, I believe very deeply in the symbiosis of story and mode, that the way that a writer chooses to tell the story has to be at least an equal partner to the story itself. Global things matter–the external architecture of the story, its internal structure, point-of-view, voice, verb tense, authorial distance, things like that. And smaller things matter equally–the use of white space, the length and rhythm of the sentences, the choice of details. When a story I’ve written has failed, it’s because I haven’t found the right way to tell it in either a large way or a small way.
TM: Everyone who’s read this book raves about its prose. It’s gorgeous! When Bit is alone as a child in the dark woods, you write, “There is a sense of gathering, a hand that clenches the center of a stretched cloth and lifts.” Later, Bit describes the unfamiliarity of boxed cookies, how they taste “the way batteries do when licked.” As an adult, he thinks of his students, their “faces cracked with interest.” The images are specific, surprising, beautiful. Can you talk a little about your relationship to sentences and imagery, and how you go about crafting your prose?
LG: Ha. Thanks. The prose that ends up in a finished piece is the product of lots and lots of drafts. I do a preliminary draft of almost everything I write, where I just sprint from the beginning of the story to the end in longhand, and when I’m done, I throw it out without rereading it. This seems wasteful, but it’s actually immensely freeing. By the time I’m done with the first draft, I’ve figured out my structural problems, have a good idea of the characters, and, most importantly, am not so wedded to the words themselves that I can’t fix what’s inherently broken about the piece. When I start again, the nice phrasing or images from the first draft reappear if they’re interesting or important and don’t if they’re not. And then, after a good longhand draft is finished (maybe after three or four re-starts), and I transfer it all to the computer, the second stage of drafting begins, where I print out the manuscript, scribble over it crabbily in red ink, insert changes, and reprint. This goes on for dozens and dozens of drafts. And then there are the trusted reader drafts, the agent drafts, the editor drafts, the copy-editor drafts. Sometimes, I wonder if writing fiction is, at its core, mostly a matter of finding a story or character that’s interesting enough to hold the writer’s interest through all of the painstaking work of revising.
TM: The novel reads episodically, with little moments or scenes broken up by white space. There are parts that feel more episodic than others, and it almost feels like time is passing in flashes, everything blurry but a brief, beautiful moment. This made the book not only highly readable, but it also emphasized the passage of time by giving it a physical dimension on the page. This is a long-winded preamble to asking you how you conceived of time passing in Arcadia. The novel is told in the present-tense, and yet, the latter half of the book is so much about Bit looking backward. How did you wrestle with all the years covered? How does scene-writing change in a book that covers so much time?
LG: Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned time. From the beginning, it was deeply important to my idea of the project of this book. I am in love with the gorgeous, elastic, leaping human brain that shuffles and connects disparate pieces of the world into a coherent story. I wanted the white space, either between the episodes or between the four parts of the book, to carry a lot of the narrative burden. Some people may live lives that are perfectly linear, but mine seems to happen in intense, emotionally-charged spurts, followed by long, fallow periods of relative calm. My impression of history–our collective storytelling–is that it happens in crests and troughs, too. With Arcadia, I wanted to examine time, through Bit, as this intensely personal experience; I also wanted to examine time in its larger historical patterns.
TM: I admit, I’m a bit annoyed that so many reviews of Arcadia give away its plot and structure , which was deeply surprising (and thus pleasurable) to me. So, ***spoiler alert*** to those reading this interview who haven’t read the book! I was shocked when this book moved forward into the future; this suddenly panoramic view of Bit’s whole life reminded me a little of A Visit from the Goon Squad (of which I am a big fan), in its surprising depiction of a future that supplies us with a new understanding of the book’s characters. Did you know you were going to structure Arcadia like this? I kept wondering if an earlier draft was more conventional, plot-wise, more like Room by Emma Donoghue–where the little boy who was born and raised in a shed escapes and in the second half of the book has to interact with this big, scary new world. Why skip ahead to Bit as an adult, now accustomed to the outside world? Were you meaning to shift our expectations of plot and novel structure?
LG: As soon as I figured out what I wanted to write about, I understood that my arc was going to move toward dystopia at the end of the book. The impulse stemmed from my research–a lot of the back-to-the-landers I read about and talked to for Arcadia went from being largely idealistic in the 1960s to being somewhat apocalyptic nowadays; for instance, a number of them ascribe to peak oil theories and practice radical homemaking. (For the record, I don’t think they’re wrong.) I was gobsmacked by the idea that people who were extremely future-thinking in their twenties would become extremely anxious about the future in their sixties. It keyed into a lot of the bleakness I was feeling at the time I envisioned this book, because, in truth, I was (am) afraid for my baby’s future. Also, the real pattern for this book was not just ending at Paradise Lost, but also extending into Paradise Regained; if Bit were going to be given the chance to return home, the stakes in the outside world had to be heightened. And though I deeply love Room, which I let myself read after my final edits, Bit’s trajectory was different because I wanted to explore how Bit carries his parents’ idealism throughout his life and how it changes him.
TM: How much research went into Arcadia? What in the commune is just pure imagination and fantasy, and what did you feel needed to be backed up with historical fact? Where does research fit into your writing process?
LG: I research first and a great deal, and then do a small amount throughout the rest of the writing process, all of which took about four years for this book. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at the beginning, so I started with just basic texts about utopias and dystopias. I moved on to utopian novels (Butler, Morris, More, Le Guin, Campanella, and on and on), read about actual historical intentional communities. The two that took my breath away were Oneida, in mid-nineteenth-century upstate New York (Mansion House is the inspiration for Arcadia House), and The Farm in 1960s through ’80s Tennessee. I spent a few days at both places. Oneida is now a guest-house, and you can stay with people who still live at The Farm, both of which experiences I recommend heartily. And then I talked to everyone who would talk to me about their experiences in intentional communities. Serendipity was on my side with this project. Even during moments that I wasn’t looking for a story, I stumbled into one. We had a garage sale and someone came up to us who said our house had housed a cult in the 1970s that she’d been a part of. Apparently, they wore pink robes and made the kids sleep in the garage.
TM: And because The Millions is a site about books, I must ask, What’s the last great book you read?
LG: I just read Leela Corman’s Unterzakhn, and can’t say enough lovely things about it. It’s a graphic novel that just came out, set on the Lower East Side in the beginning of the twentieth century. It’s lush and smart and and funny and just beautifully drawn. And I just reread Jami Attenberg’s great new novel called The Middlesteins, which will be published in October. It’s so great-hearted and warm and brilliant. You’ll love it.