- Amherst ReadsAmherst Reads
- Featured Book of the Month
- Past Features
- January 2016: Girl in Glass By Deanna Fei '99
- November 2015: Visiting Indira Gandhi's Palmist by Kirun Kapur '97
- October 2015: Rescue Road by Peter Zheutlin '75
- September 2015: Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker '96
- August 2015: The Tutor by Andrea Chapin '82
- July 2015: The Patisan Divide by Tom Davis '71
- June 2015: John William Ward: An American Idealist By Kim Townsend
- May 2015: The Gentleman Bat by Abraham Schroeder '01
- April 2015: Hungry for France by Alexander Lobrano '77
- March 2015: The Opposite of Spoiled by Ron Lieber '93
- February 2015: The Cottoncrest Curse by Michael Rubin '72
- January 2015: Race Horse Men by Katherine Mooney '04
- December 2014: Gruesome Spectacles by Austin Sarat
- November 2014: All I Love and Know by Judith Frank
- October 2014: Catching Lightning in a Bottle: How Merrill Lynch Revolutionized the Financial World by Winthrop H. Smith, Jr. '71
- September 2014: When Paris Went Dark: : The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 by Ron Rosbottom
- August 2014: Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian '82
- July 2014: The Economy of You by Kimberly Palmer '01
- June 2014: Collecting Shakespeare:The Story of Henry and Emily Folger
- May 2014: The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil
- April 2014: Maybe One Day by Melissa Kantor '91
- March 2014: Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece
- February 2014: Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age
- January 2014: Full Upright and Locked Position by Mark Gerchick '73, P'13
- December 2013: This Indian Country by Fred Hoxie '69
- November 2013: The Partner Track by Helen Wan '95
- October 2013: The Forage House by Tess Taylor '99
- September 2013: Inferno by Dan Brown '86
- August 2013: Six Years by Harlan Coben '84, P'16
- July 2013: The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein '88
- June 2013 - Brothers Emanuel by Ezekiel Emanuel '79
- May 2013 - Cadaver by Jonah Ansell '03
- April 2013 - Masters of Disaster by Chris Lehane '90
- March 2013 - Schroder by Amity Gaige
- February 2013: El Iluminado by Ilan Stavans
- January 2013: Everything Under the Sun by David Suzuki '58
- December 2012: Arcadia by Lauren Groff
- November 2012: The Hidden Europe by Francis Tapon '92
- October 2012: The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz '64
- September 2012: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum '99
- August 2012: Hitlerland by Andrew Nagorski '69
- July 2012: Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach '93
- June 2012: Vineyard at the End of the World by Ian Mount '92
- May 2012: God's Jury by Cullen Murphy '74
- April 2012: Big Birthday by Kate Hosford '88
- March 2012: EyeMinded by Kellie Jones '81
- February 2012: 1493 by Charles Mann '76
- December 2011: The Vices by Lawrence Douglas
- November 2011: Don't Cross Your Eyes by Aaron Carroll '94
- October 2011: Come On All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder '89
- September 2011: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace '85
- August 2011: Scoundrels in Law by Cait Murphy '83
- July 2011: Terror and Wonder by Blair Kamin '79
- June 2011: What Should I Do? by Professor Alex George
- May 2011: Model Nazi by Professor Catherine Epstein
- April 2011: A Thread of Sky by Deanna Fei '99
- March 2011: Unlikely Allies by Joel Paul '77
- February 2011: Secret Historian by Justin Spring '84
- December 2010: The Best of Foxtrot by Bill Amend '84
- November 2010: Higher Education? by Andrew Hacker '51
- October 2010: Routes of Man by Ted Conover '80
- September 2010: The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick '75
- August 2010: Innocent by Scott Turow '70
- July 2010: Simple Fresh Southern by Matt and Ted Lee '93
- June 2010: Ballet's Magic Kingdom by Professor Stanely Rabinowitz
- May 2010: Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman '68
- April 2010: Andean Express by Adrian Althoff '04
- March 2010: Freefall by Joseph Stiglitz '64
- February 2010: Beautiful Creatures by Margaret Stohl '89
- December 2009: What to Read When by Pam Allyn '84
- November 2009: On Poets and Poetry by William H. Pritchard '53
- October 2009: Julie & Julia by Julie Powell '95
- September 2009: Rules for Old Men Waiting by Peter Pouncey
- August 2009: The End of Overeating by David Kessler '73
- July 2009: The Mirror Effect by Dr. Drew Pinsky '80
- June 2009: Art and Politics of Science by Harold Varmus '61
- May 2009: Hold Tight by Harlan Coben '84
- April 2009: Passing Strange by Marni Sandweiss
- March 2009: Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian '82
- February 2009: Loneliness as a Way of Life by Tom Dumm
- January 2009: Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein '88
- December 2008: The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff '01
- November 2008: The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate '89
- October 2008: The Thing Itself by Dick Todd '62
- September 2008: Are We Rome by Cullen Murphy '74
- Search the Catalog
Arcadia: A Conversation with Lauren Groff '01 and Jen Acker '00
[Trigger warning: this interview contains sexual content]
Loading the player...
Listen to the conversation
Loading the player...
Jen Acker: Lauren it's great to talk to you today. I am Jennifer Acker. I am the class of 2000 of Amherst, and I'm the editor of The Common, which is a new print and online literary magazine that is based at Amherst College and partially supported by Amherst college press. We are launching into issue #4 and you, Lauren, are one of our wonderful authors who contributed to debut issue #1, which I was really excited about.
So, Lauren you're class of 2001, just a year after me, you have an MFA from the University of Madison Wisconsin where you worked with Lorrie Moore among other wonderful people.
Arcadia is your second novel, after your debut of The Monsters of Templeton and your third book in four years, which is pretty incredible, including the short story collection Delicate, Edible Birds in 2009 I think. Among many other accolades, Arcadia, which we're going to talk about today, was an editor's choice of the New York Times and was very recently named one of the 10 best books of the year from the Washington post, alongside Hilary Mantel’s Bringing up the Bodies and Canada by Richard Ford, so I hope you're really excited about that, congratulations.
I loved Arcadia so I am really excited to talk to you about it today. It was incredibly rich, compelling, engrossing and tragic. It's a pleasure to have this Amherst reads conversation with you. Welcome!
Lauren Groff: Thank you! Thank you so much for having me. I just wanted to say that I am a huge fan of The Common and not just because you were so kind to pick one of my stories for the first issue, but it's one of those literary journals that I wait for and devour the day that it comes. Thank you, I think the love is mutual here.
JA: Wonderful. Thank you. About Arcadia, this partially comes from the common being about a sense of place, so were I want to start talking about your lovely novel is that, Arcadia, the fictional, utopian settlement that's at the heart at your novel, is both a place and an ideal. I wonder if you could start by describing Arcadia physically as a place, what it looks like, the buildings and the natural landscapes, the people there and how they organize themselves. A big picture description of Arcadia which you do so wonderfully in so many places in the book, but just in your own words, how you think of it? What kind of place is it?
LG: Sure. One of the seeds for the book was that I had read Sir Thomas More's Utopia which was the place where the word was coined. In Greek it means both "no place" and "best place." So it's an idealized, imagined place. It's a very strange book as a matter of fact because I think throughout the years people saw it as being very straight forward and earnest, as if Sir Thomas Moore where actually advocating for the world that he created in Utopia but it's honestly a very satirical work. One of the funniest pieces in the very first edition, I had found it online and was amazed by it, is this wood cut of the island of Utopia. If you look at it, it was very beautiful in the way that woodcuts are often beautiful. But after I did some research, I found that it's actually very sensuous. There's a boat sailing into this harbor, and if you look at it the wrong way it's very phallic. It's kind of funny in the same way that the book is supposed to be sort of satirical. So I had this on the wall for a long time. And the sensual object in the in the woodcut is this large structure. And I built my particular Arcadia around this idea of the large structure. So when I did some research I went to a couple of intentional communities. One of which was Oneida of upstate New York. Oneida still has this beautiful mansion house. You can actually stay there as a guest house. It's a huge brick building based on priors utopian ideals where they used to manufacture bear traps and jams in there, and everybody lived together and there was this great big room where they put on plays and musical interludes and it's just a very beautiful, well-thought out, well designed planned place. So in my particular Arcadia, I have this old abandoned house, that is sort of based on the Oneida mansion house, on top of a hill, and then when my 1960s and 70s radicals get to Arcadia, they didn't even know that there was this abandoned house there, and they built an ersatz community of bread trucks and showers made out of cement blocks and laundromats. There are some original outhouses that are turned into bakeries and soy dairies and things like that. That part comes from a different place that I had studied and visited called “the Farm” which was this intentional community from the late ’60s through the early ’80s in their hayday and it is still going on today in Tennessee. It’s really a mind mill of a couple of different ideas about a perfect place, and when I sat down to write through for myself an essay of what I would plan as my ideal place, it ended up being this vision of Oneida and the Farm and Utopia.
JA: What were some of the rules of this utopian world that you drew up in your own vision, if you were to design a utopia. Or what were some of the principals that you wrote out in this essay you just mentioned.
LG: A lot of this is cribbed from what other people have done just because I’m not a philosopher and I like to think things through but by sort of a magpie, so I grabbed some ideas like communalism. The mere fact that people live together. I think it’s a very important way to educate children. Because I have children, I do long for people to be always available to take care of them because I want to be able to work also. And then there’s communal food making and food making from as localized an environment as possible because I think that’s a very important political thing that’s going on today. We don’t get most of our food from where we live. And I think trying to make most of our food from where we live is very important. That’s another aspect. No money. There’s no barter system, there’s a gift system in certain places as opposed to trading for goods system; everyone works. I actually really do like something that I first stole from Oneida which is this idea of mutual criticism, where if someone is not adhering to the philosophies of the utopia then everyone sits down and they talk about it and they talk about these people’s flaws. Of course that can get very wrong very fast, but I like the idea of it. Honestly, I like the idea of a lot of things that I put into the Arcadia of the book, and I knew in real life they possibly would not work out the way that you would hope they would in the idealized place that you imagined.
JA: We were talking about the principals that you had admired from many of these intentional communities that you visited, and thinking through these kinds of communities for yourself, were there any principals or rules that you found would be necessary for an orderly society but not really ideal, where you object to them on an idealistic principal but because things have to get done, because of the practical nature of living together, they felt necessary?
LG: There were some things that I think that could still work if people were very thoughtful about implementing them. But the problem with committees is it’s very difficult to make decisions a lot of times, especially when some of the decision making is influenced by anarchists, for instance. It’s very tricky to implement philosophy in real life because human beings are so extraordinarily complicated and messy. When we present our ideals, sometimes we don’t consider every aspect of how a person is going to react. Especially people who gravitate towards intentional communities, want very badly to do right and to do good things. But then there are aspects, for instance, take communal child rearing, where it gets a little sticky because if one of your child rearers has her own child how do you not put that child ahead of the needs of others, how do you not show preference in a community like this when personalities get along better or worse. There are a lot of things in general that are meaningful and it takes a lot of energy to keep them on track, and it takes a very small amount of personal discord to send the whole train off track.
JA: Well you certainly see in Arcadia the pursuit of these ideals and how fervently people are perusing them. The narrator of the novel is Bit, who is the first child born in Arcadia. I’m hoping you will read a couple of short passages, one in which Bit’s perceptions of Arcadia are of the beauty of the place and of the joy and the idealism of the successful moments of Arcadia. And then for contrast a short moment or a couple of sentences in which Bit sees the darkness or potential darkness of Arcadia.
LG: I was thinking when Bit goes for a run. It’s on page 95.
JA: This is a moment in which Bit is going for a run and experiencing a joyous moment.
“For hours bit waits for sleep. Shortly before dawn, he gives up. When he rises, he listens for his friends’ breath to stir. They sleep on. He opens the window to air out the room, the awful dead creatures that are Ike’s feet, the mixed adolescent body stink. He carefully dresses in his shirt and jeans. His broken sneakers mouth open when he walks, toes lapping the air like tongues.
Through the Ado Unit Common Room, through the hallways, plaster gapping and lath exposed, down the smooth polished banister for silence. Through the Library, heaped with Whole Earth Catalogs, old New Yorkers, silverished books dug up from the basement where the first inhabitants had stashed them: American Eclectic, Walden, News from Nowhere. Also Carlos Castandeda, Julia Kristeva, Herman Wouk, paperbacks scavenged from dumpsters or bought for a nickel. He slips through the eatery, redolent of last night’s enchiladas. It is early for the breakfast shift, who will soon clang pans and stir yeast and soy into scrambled yegg and wash the apples, wormy but good. All is still and nobody is awake but Bit.
Out in the black, he runs down the slate steps by touch alone. The encampments across Arcadia are dark, only a few bobbing lights from afar, the flashlights of people rising for the loo. From the Bakery, a rich bread smell rises. His skin prickles with cold; dew flings from his heels to his back. There is a sharp edge to the sky, pine tanging the air, stones scattering like live creatures under his step. He runs as fast as his legs can take him, very fast for a body small as his, then slows to enjoy the darkness softening in the woods.
A cardinal flushes from a bush, but he has forgotten his new camera that this grandmother has sent him. He thinks of returning, but the run back is so far, and day break won’t wait for him.
One breath before dawn, he climbs the hill.
At the top, in a cluster of sweet William above the pines, he sits to watch day begin to hatch its yellow. A hawk stretches its wings and swirls as it rises. The fog rolls from the ground like a blanket and swiftly covers the distant mountains, the fields, the Pond, the streams; covers Amos the Amish’s farr-off barn, the thin lace that is Verda’s smoke. A hungry creature, the fog; it gobbles. It climbs up the Terraces with the crooked apple trees. At last, only Bit and Arcadia House sit turned toward each other, each alone on a hill, above the fog’s milky sea. Two islands, they are, brightening in the dawn.
JA: Thank you. It’s a beautiful moment. It’s interesting that this moment is Bit taking a moment for himself away from Arcadia and looking back at it and still appreciating it. Is that how the moment feels for you?
LG: It does. I love humanity. This is part of the reason why I chose this profession; I can take people in very small quantities. So for me, the whole feeling of Arcadia, especially at this point, is simply that life there, it’s just a feeling of overwhelming peopleness, too much humanity. All I wanted was for him to get some time alone just to breath and to think and to still love where he comes from but, man, just to be alone.
JA: Totally, it struck me as claustrophobic as well. In some wonderful ways in certain moments, but that moment feels necessary for Bit in the way that moments of solitude are necessary for writers.
LG: Right. Right and he ends up being an artist. He always has that observer’s quality. But because he was raised in a communal environment, it’s both very difficult for him to find solitude and very, very necessary, it’s part of how he feeds himself in his soul.
JA: Do you think that Bit’s parents, Hannah and Abe, feel the same necessity that Bit does or that the founders of Arcadia have a different idea of privacy or some different threshold?
LG: I think it’s one of those things for Hannah and Abe that actually wears them down over time. It’s the invisible, daily grind of the reality of living with a lot of people. It does become difficult, even if one is like Hannah and Abe, if one is a people person, very much an extrovert, it still becomes a weight on your shoulders. Not to let anything out because this happens half way through the book, but when Arcadia does implode a little bit, that’s one of the things you sense or I hope one senses as their fleeing, there’s a sense of incredible freedom and looseness, at the same time a lot of sorrow. After the many years that they were living there, they longed for the space of their own and then when they got it they didn’t quite know what to do with it. I think that’s just the way we deal with things. I was just at a writer’s colony, which I loved, but I honestly did not know what to do with myself when I woke up in the morning and there weren’t children putting their hands all over my face. You just become accustomed to the life that you’re living, and even if you believe you want something else, it’s quite a shock to not live there.
JA: The choices that Abe and Hannah make when they are away from the community, from Arcadia, are surprising to them because they haven’t made choices in isolation for a long time.
LG: Right. It’s difficult to come back to the world at large which is by far a less caring and open place. Where they come to, they come to the city.
JA: New York City.
LG: There are things in place for Abe to help him, but nobody is actually looking out for them, they have to look out for themselves and they haven’t been used to that for a very long time. It’s saddening in a way to feel as if you’re kind of on our own as we are out here.
JA: You mentioned when Arcadia begins to fall apart, one of the moments of that continues to haunt me from the book is towards the end where there are so many people coming into Arcadia and especially the young women feel very much at risk to me. I’m frightened for them and Bit is frightened for them because of so many drug-addled men walking around Arcadia and the ways that people are thinking about love and sex and relationships in Arcadia in general and then at this time when things are quite scattered. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that decline period of Arcadia and then read from one of the sections were Bit is watching Helle, one of his female friends, walk around these dark tents at night and one of those haunting moments.
LG: Here’s the flip side of allowing yourself to be vulnerable which I actually think it’s something we should all work on a little bit. I’m not very good at allowing myself to be vulnerable. But the people at Arcadia, what I admire most about them, is that they do let themselves be vulnerable because they have a lot of trust in the people around them. But what happens when you allow strangers in, is that this principal of trust gets a little shaken, because you don’t know who these people are. At one point there are so many strangers there that this vulnerability becomes not an asset of Arcadia but a huge liability because it’s true, young women and children and all of the pregnant ladies, the trippies, who are the people who have taken too much acid and are being taken care of, all of these people are at little bit of a risk in this place which was supposed to be very safe for them. And Arcadia is under a lot of strain because one of the principals is that you take care of people who need you to take care of them. If there aren’t enough people taking care of the vulnerable, then they’re at risk and there’s also not enough being done for the others who aren’t at risk. There is this incredible balance that needs to be sustained and is not at the end.
And I’m glad to read. I should set this up by saying, this day is a huge festival that was supposed to be just be for the denizens of Arcadia but somehow the word got out and tons of people came to crash this party and its putting alot of strain on Arcadia. And this is in the middle of the night. In Arcadia they have these beautiful apple trees and they make something called slap-apple, which is sort of an alcoholic drink and somebody put something bad in the slap-apple and Bit drank some of it. This is way dark in the middle of the night and he’s wandering around in the forest.
“A new sound arises out of the forest, a low groan that, at first, he thinks is the music of the spheres, the great cold stars singing, not at all as lovely as he’d imagined. But it is too close, and Bit freezes, waits to see where the sound is coming from.
There, he sees a pool of darkness, an oil slick that grows upward, becomes a black lump on the ground, lit in some places by unshadowed moon. Even in his off-kilter brain, he knows it is a couple of people having fun. Something isn’t quite right, though, with the way the bodies are. Bit squints through the pulsing fog in his eyes. There is a person on top of another, yet the head of the seconds is in the wrong place, yards away, as if the body is both enormous and bent. A quickening, a rattle in the chest, a raw bear growl, and then a belt buckle tingles, the fucker stands over the fuckee’s legs.
‘Thanks, baby,’ comes a man’s voice quietly. ‘You were amazing.’
A voice rises, a girl’s, ‘Sure, she says, it was fun.’
Now the man says, ‘Hey, you think you have a little sugar for my buddy here? What do you think? Share a little? If not, it’s totally cool, but he really digs you. Be a favor for me.’
‘You’re just a gorgeous thing, says another voice,’ higher-pitched, male. ‘Prettiest thing I’ve seen in a long, long time.’
There is a long pause, then the girl says, hesitant, ‘I don’t…’
‘Come on,’ says the first man. ‘It’s no big deal.’ He kneels at begins to whisper, and at last the girl’s voice emerges from the darkness.
‘Okay,’ she says, with bravado.
The second man rises, belt jingles, crouches down, merges with the girl’s body on the ground.
Bit can’t move. He can’t breathe. The man finishes, and both men stand up, looking at the lump on the ground, struggling to sit. Let’s take her back, one says, and they pick the girl up between them and dust her off. One of them, it seems, picks something tenderly out of her hair.
Bit shrinks behind the tree beside him as they crash past over the sticks and leaves. They come straight at him, so close he can smell the musk of sex, clove cigarettes, blood, alcohol. Even closer, and he wills himself into the tree. They pass, and Bit sees a sprinkle of black under one man’s eye, the shimmer off a leather jacket, and Helle’s face gleaming like its own moon, a comet tail of white in the air where she’d been.
JA: Thank you, that was exactly the moment I was thinking of, and I find it incredibly haunting because it’s a very complicated moment. There’s some tenderness in this moment also, but this moment also becomes crucial in the relationship between Bit and Helle. Even though I don’t know that it’s specifically referred to later on in the book, their relationship as it proceeds through the book is embodied here.
LG: I think if you come into a situation like this, and he hasn’t seen what’s happened before, he just doesn’t know what to do. I’m not sure I would know what to do if you come across a situation like this. Because it feels very much like a violation, but the words said are not. And Helle is a different person and she was raised differently. It’s all very fraught for Bit and he can’t quite understand it. He knows something is wrong but he doesn’t know what or how to fix it.
JA: Well, like you said, it’s this community of innocence who are suddenly exposed to the world and have to figure out how to interact with people they have not known their whole lives.
LG: You know what’s funny, I mean this is not funny it’s terribly sad, I was doing a lot of precursor research to this book, all the reading I was doing, I did notice a trend that sex is really the thing that blasts these places to pieces. Coming back to Oneida, the thing that brought it down was the fact that they had these very strange sexual practices from the mid to late 19th century. All the old men and women inducted the young people into the communal marriage that they had for instance. Even with more modern places, there had been a lot of sex scandals about these things. Sex is just such a complicating feature and I wanted badly to put it in because, god, it’s not simple for anyone or anything but especially in a community.
JA: There are rules in the beginning that are set up but then have to be changed and altered or characters are then fighting over or disagreeing within and watching Bit grow up in this community where Handy, the leader of the community, has multiple wives and watching him figure out on his own what this means and what his own relationships with friends and women are going to be like. It’s very interesting.
LG: Exactly. And Handy is an interesting creature just because he gets away with things that are not really agreed on anymore, and he doesn’t necessarily change as the community does. There’s a part of him that is very much ruled by ego in a place that’s supposed to be fairly egoless. So when Bit looks at Handy, he sees someone he actually truly admires, but part of his coming, sort of the building room in part of this book, is how he tries to understand what he agrees with and what he doesn’t and what he can understand from Handy and the example of Handy and his father Abe, they are in a lot of ways the opposing voices in Arcadia.
JA: In a way they’re supposed to be equal, but Handy is also the leader, or the figurehead, and perhaps more charismatic.
LG: Even though he calls himself the teacher, the guru. A guru is still a leader, in a leaderless place. There’s this inherit tension there that is almost impossible to get over.
JA: Listening to them argue and watching Handy still want and need to be the leader at a time when the community is thinking about a change in leadership structure is applicable to so many societies. I want to talk about a little about parenting and parents and children in this book because I think that Arcadia contains some of the most exquisite descriptions and painful reflections of parenting that I’ve ever read. In a profile in the New York Observer, you said that “Arcadia became a long, painful argument with myself about what you need to do in order to be happy with bringing children into the world.” So I’m wondering if one thing you could talk about a little bit is how you wrote about parenting in this book that was different from how you thought about writing about parenting before you had kids and in Monsters of Templeton for example. Are there different ways you think about portraying parenting in those parent-child relationships in your writing?
LG: I’m incredibly fraught, but every decision is incredibly fraught. But it is true that this book really is a long argument, and the problem with this argument is that it’s never won and I can come to a place of stasis for a little while and then something sparks it up again. Even though the book is over, the argument continues in me and in the world, or me versus the world, I guess. In my previous books I haven’t been a parent. I think I related to the idea of parenting as a daughter because I’ve always been at any given time and a daughter of a town and daughter of people. The idea of legitimacy was really big also because in the beginning of a career, you do wonder about your legitimacy in every way. Whether or not you are the person who can tell this story. Whether or not you are legitimately a writer in the eyes of the world but you’re not until you have your name on an article and you’re published. There’s a strong question about legitimacy. The Monsters of Templeton is really about that idea of parenthood.
JA: More about being a daughter and being raised.
LG: And where you belong. The long line of your ancestors but also, in my case, because I’m a writer, literary antecedents. Where do you fit in, I guess was my previous concern. I was pregnant with my first son Beckett, who is almost 4 months now, and I was waiting for The Monsters of Templeton to come out and I was deeply depressed. It was tremendously bad. When I work I’m less depressed. Possibly another reason why I write. I had to sit down with myself and figure out what was making me so anxious, what was making me look up millenarianism. I had also read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road which is the worst thing to read when you’re pregnant. There are very legitimate fears about where we are going as a society that I indulge to the max. I live in Florida, which is hurricane alley, so at every moment we are worried about our house being blown over. There’s just a lot of fear and anxiety and just exacerbated at that time so I had to look for something in my work that would put it into perspective or refrain the argument or just keep me involved to forget myself. The only that I hit on was the idea of happy people which translated into the idea of idealistic people, people who are very cognizant of the threats of the world and yet try to do their own thing and try to make something beautiful, almost in the space of anxiety. This book was born of huge amounts of anxiety and it was a way to control from bucking in by anxiety and to let me get through my pregnancy. What was amazing was that it’s not like I had much of a choice, by a certain time in the pregnancy he was coming. But as soon as the baby was here, I feared less because there was truly nothing that could happen. Everything could happen outside of the world, but now I just had to deal with it.
JA: Once the baby arrived you were faced with the practical concerns for caring for it rather than any anxieties about whether what you were doing was the right thing.
LG: Exactly. The ethical decision of having a child was no longer in play because he was here. I couldn’t fight on this plane and I had to fight on a more practical plane. It was amazing because as soon as he was born, this anxiety lifted off of me like a cloak and went somewhere else. Time enabled the book to be written entirely. Before I did a lot of research and then I just wrote the book. This is a deeply personal book, it’s definitely not autobiographical, and it’s personal also in a way that my parents are getting older. In this book there’s a lot of discussion about how do we face down our eventual demise, we are all humans, which means we will all die. And how do you face that prospect with grace and dignity, and how do you face the prospect of people close to you not being here anymore. That can fulfill your anxiety also. There’s so much of plights that I continue to have in this book. I haven’t answered any questions unfortunately but I don’t think that’s what novels are for because I feel like they’re just about asking the questions.
JA: Your deep probing of these questions, this is the forum for you to work these things out. The book, as much as it’s about parenting and giving birth, we see so many cycles in the book and cycles of loss. The Arcadia as an ideal and as a place are lost, there’s a facing of losing loved ones, losing physical abilities. In thinking about all of this loss and in particular the characters reactions to what they lose, I’m interested in how you thought about writing about grief and the different incarnations of grief for different kinds of people. Grief can be challenging to portray sometimes because it’s such a profoundly universal emotion. It can be hard to make it distinct to a character or show how different kinds of loss feel differently to a person. Can you say anything how you thought about different character’s reactions to different kinds of loss? Or their different mourning and grieving processes?
LG: The bad thing about writing about grief is that it’s so universal but that’s also the good thing about it. Practically everyone that will understand it knows loss or will know loss in some form or another. It’s what makes us able to emphasize and to really feel for other people. What is reading a book but the ultimate act of empathy. In this book, from the beginning I knew that it was going to be about losing, losing Arcadia, and facing the prospect of losing because we all do lose. Going back to the argument with myself, the thing that was paralyzing me was the fear of losing. It’s a reality, we’re going to have to do this, I’m going to have to do this, we are all going to have to do to handle it, and the fear is not productive. The anxiety is the ugly underbelly of it. So being able to write about projected loss was being able to look at it firmly in the face and understand that it will happen. In a sort of controlled environment. It’s the same impulse that made me write about a more idealized community. It’s my way to create a plastic model that can change under the pressure of the characters and to see how things happen. The novelistic urge is to do this thing, this trick to create a hypothesis, sets characters loose and see what happens. And the plastic hypothesis and some of the many in this book are “how do you make an ideal community?” “how do you deal with grief?” “how do you deal with losing what we will all lose?” What had happened was, my books are written from an intensely personal place and if I’m lucky, after the first five or six drafts I try to see if they can become a little bit more universal. So it’s not just private and specific, it becomes to be a little bit more universal. But it’s always a big struggle in writing anything, as you know, because you’re a writer, you create this thing that is so meaningful to you and you have to try to make it meaningful to other people. This is just a big long explanation of everything that I was afraid of. All the boogeymans underneath the bed.
JA: Coming out one by one.
JA: I have one last question for you which is about reading. We’ve compared a few notes about authors who we love and tremendously admire including Alice Monroe and Shirley Hazzard and Marilynne Robinson. One small question is, where there any literary guides or models that you were thinking about when you were writing Arcadia. I know you read widely and voraciously, perhaps more than anyone I know. So you were probably reading much during those years that you were writing the book, but were there any voices or particular works you return because they helped you move forward in writing Arcadia, or reminded you of something you wanted to do with Arcadia?
LG: Absolutely. There were books that I looked at for the philosophy and the ideas, and there were books that I looked at for just the mere fact that I want to spend part of my life in the presence of these authors. Some of the people you mentioned actually people whose books sit right now on my desk. I read Marilynne Robison’s Housekeeping. There are parts of Housekeeping actually in Arcadia, the place in the first few drafts, the place where Bit is born, is actually Finger-bone from Housekeeping. But Middlemarch is a book that is really the foundational text of Arcadia. I love George Eliot, I love her wisdom and I love her empathy. I love everything she stands for. I see her as the far end of the spectrum of literary empathy. And on the other end is Ayn Rand, the absence of literary empathy. There’s John Milton with Paradise Lost, which is obviously a precursor. I saw this book as being a paradise lost and somewhat regained in the way we regain it. When I want a sentence or when I just feel at loss for words themselves, I always look at Marguerite Duras. Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus is another book that I always have on my desk no matter what. There are so many people I just am in love with, passionately in love with. I’m actually hoping I never ever get to meet them because I don’t know if I would be able to handle the gap between who I think they are and…
JA: Worship is a hard thing to carry around and then to present to the idol.
LG: You know this right? Because there’re people, some of the people you talk about. We have very overlapping Venn diagrams of who we adore, Jenn, you and I.
JA: All of those people.
LG: All of those people. They’re all amazing. Deborah Eisenberg, oh my god, that lady, she’s so fantastic. Most of them for me are short story writers who are just deeply empathetic, and I think that’s what I look for when I look for writing.
JA: All of those authors have a kind of warmth to their prose. I think Hazzard might be the most analytical or maybe Eisenberg the coolest in temperament. But they still bring such rich understanding to the characters that, that’s why you read them.
LG: I actually think Eisenberg is not at all cool. I think of her as having a pretense to coolness that underlies this frantic warmth. And Shirley Hazzard, I don’t find her at all cool. I find her hot, she just burns really bright.
JA: I think the emotions are really fierce.
LG: It’s funny that I feel like I’ve pretty much only mentioned women. That’s not at all the case. My contemporaries, the people who are alive that I think of as models tend to be female writers. I just realized that, that’s amazing.
JA: I realized that recently too, just in comparing notes with you about my top 5 novelists who I recommend and who’s books I pass around.
LG: Oh! James Salter is the man. He’s fantastic. Love the James Salter.
JA: Him too. He can climb up into the pantheon.
LG: Even if he’s a man.
JA: It was really fun to talk to you, more than fun, enlightening, and wonderful. Lauren, such a pleasure, again, as always. Congratulations on Arcadia. I look forward to the next book and to our next conversation.
JA: Me too Jen, thank you so much.