Books In Conversation
LAUREN GROFF with Matthew Daddona
The Masters Review
(Masters Review Books, 2012)
For the first time this year, the Masters Review, a creative writing outpost from Portland, Oregon, released its inaugural edition featuring 10 standout M.F.A. students from across the country. While all the stories teem with fresh perspective, voice, narrative punch, and impressive gusto, each shares the privilege of being adjudicated and selected by Lauren Groff. Groff, whose best-selling second novel, Arcadia, was released by Hyperion/Voice in March 2012 to unremitting praise, is a young author who certainly knows the value of a good story (and the modesty involved in admitting something is “good”). Modesty aside, these stories are excellent purveyors of the talent that lies ahead, and the attentiveness of the Masters Review in having Groff jump aboard to select and edit. Groff is a team player, a circumspect observer, and an adept staple in the changing force of modern literature. I emailed Groff to ask about her selection process, the significance of the M.F.A. program in learning how to write, gender biases, and fears (hers and other writers’ respectively).
Matthew Daddona (Rail): The continued success of your second novel, Arcadia, beckons a question about how to view success as a writer. How do you view yours and other writers’ success?
Lauren Groff: This is an incredibly fraught question. I suppose I’d have to say that, when you take a long view, very few things matter all that much, especially sales numbers or publication records or awards, all of the things that give us so much anxiety. I’d say success is when a work comes close to matching the project as it appeared when it lived only in the writer’s head. In that light, I’m deeply unsuccessful, because nothing I’ve ever written has reached what I wanted it to. I’m getting closer, though. We’re all getting closer, I hope.
Rail: The anthology for which you selected stories, the Masters Review, publishes the best short stories from graduate-level creative writing programs. How do you judge, select, and critique these stories? Is there a process you adhere to, or is the selecting more intuitive? How many “Absolutely!” moments did you have when selecting these 10 stories?
Groff: Well, this was the first year for the Masters Review, and a great deal of work was involved on the wonderful editors’ parts just to get it off the ground—they did everything before I came along, and sent along a small number of stories that they had culled from the larger group. From the group they sent, I chose the stories that felt most alive to me: some were flawed, as all stories are somewhat flawed, but they were all breathing. I think I had three “Absolutely!” stories, and I had to live with the others for a little while to make sure. In the end, I’m glad that all of them made it in.
Rail: Of the 10 stories only one was written by a male. While I’m sure this result is pure coincidence rather than intention, do you see a difference between “male writing” and “female writing”? If so, how far back does this trend extend? In particular, I am reminded of your story collection, Delicate Edible Birds, which contains feminist overtones. Does a distinction between masculine and feminine voices in writing point to anything greater about the sociological and political ramifications of literature on society?
Groff: Oh, I’m glad you noticed—this was absolutely coincidence, and we had actually selected another story by a male writer which had been published by the time we took it. I’m passionate about this question, but I’m afraid I don’t have the space here to answer it in-depth in the way that it deserves (give me 10,000 words and I’ll go nuts for you). But as a woman writer, you are always aware of the way that gender tarnishes expectations, often before anyone has ever read a word of yours; and I’m equally aware of a bias in the opposite direction, as a sort of justice-serving, and so I tried to read the stories blind, and it just so happened we had many more women writers submit than men.
Rail: A personal favorite of mine, “The Sticking Place” written by Zana Previti, employs a plethora of dialogue with rhetorical reversals that seem so natural and learned for a young writer. How do you think good dialogue is either created or manifested?
Groff: My god, I love that story. I don’t quite know how she did the dialogue, to be honest. I do think that dialogue is interesting if it’s never static, if power shifts from one line to the next, and she is a very clever writer because she does that swift transfer of power so very well.
Rail: Do you currently teach? What would be your most important and repeated (and perhaps most despised) maxim as a teacher? I think it was the film director Michael Bay who said you don’t go to film school to learn how to make films, you learn what kind of films to make. Do you feel it’s the same with M.F.A. programs?
Groff: I teach in a low-residency M.F.A. program at Queens University in Charlotte. My most important idea, I think, is that nothing is ever wasted: just because our first drafts of a story may not work out, it doesn’t mean that that same story isn’t going to come roaring out of the darkness a decade later, already formed, and ready for the page. We have to allow ourselves looseness and the grace of messing up in a massive way. We have to keep experimenting and wasting pages. If you adopt this idea, you’re inoculated a little against the frustration attendant in the writing life, and frustration is the thing that keeps many people from finishing their novels or continuing to write after they’ve had years of disappointment. I don’t think I agree with Michael Bay, here, only because I think you can go get your M.F.A. and learn how to write. I mean that you can learn how to commit to your stories and see them all the way through and have faith that something good is going to come out of so many hours of sitting in loneliness and misery. Learning what kind of stories to write is a very tiny aspect of the M.F.A. years, I think.
Rail: You did your M.F.A. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Are there any stories during that time you wish you could come back to and “rewrite?” Have you already?
Groff: Oh, dear god, I would want to rewrite nearly every one of them and have rewritten a few.
Rail: Who is one author that every young writer, regardless of style, structure, voice, etc., should read?
Groff: Only one? All right: Anton Chekhov. But really there are a million.
Rail: Are there any stories in the collection you wish you could have written? Any that make you say, “Reminds me of a young Lauren?”
Groff: There are no stories that remind me of a young me, and thank god for that: everyone in the collection is unique and clear and already their own writer. There are elements in every single story here that I wish I had come up with, certainly.
Rail: Younger and older writers alike have told me that it is both an exciting and fearful prospect to write outside one’s ordinary bounds (experiences, languages, cultures, places). When did you feel comfortable to take this on? Do you have any advice about how to make this happen? Furthermore, what are your fears (literary or not)?
Groff: I think we have to push ourselves if we write fiction, because fiction is the art of empathy, and if we have empathy only for people who are like us, we become very stunted very quickly. Research makes me more comfortable to take on experiences outside the ones I have lived. So does remembering that my characters are individuals and have deep sensory connections to their environments. I have so many fears, I’d put you to sleep if I were to list them all. The fear I face down every single day is that I won’t live up to my own standards. I never do. And that’s okay.
Rail: What I love and admire about the collection’s second story, “A Body in Motion” by Erica Sklar, is the narrator’s acute, and always tender, depreciation of her body on land as opposed to water. She says at one point, “Part of dating someone who is better looking than you means wondering if you’re good enough, and if other people recognize that you aren’t.” I love this line, and I think it can be morphed into a metaphor about literature. Should a writer always be fraught with this sad but true awareness?
Groff: This story—or piece of creative nonfiction (I think by the time it got to me, the categories were mixed)—rocked me. I do think you’re right that the line could be translated to a metaphor about literature, at least about being a writer in the world. No matter what, your work is going to be judged, it’s a fact of the trade, and we will often feel as if we, and our work, are not beautiful enough or good enough. This awareness kills the creative impulse in some people. But we can see it as a source of power, instead, a way to ensure that the work we do is as good as we can possibly make it. And, in the way that what other people think should have no real bearing on a relationship, the prospect of eventual judgment should have no real bearing on what is important in writing, which is the very private relationship between a writer and her words. The joy of composition will always outweigh the joy of publication, which is exactly how it should be.