New Jersey native Lauren Grodstein is the author of three books: The Best of Animals, a short story collection, Reproduction is the Flaw of Love, a short novel, and most recently, A Friend of the Family, a family drama that has been named a Washington Post Book of the Year, a New York Times Editor’s Pick and an Amazon.com Best Book of the Month. Grodstein is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University where she also runs the Rutgers-Camden reading series and helps administer the new MFA program. She lives in New Jersey with her young son, Nathaniel, and musician husband, Ben.
Between book touring, teaching, writing, and mothering, Grodstein found time to sit down and answer questions about the art of writing and life with writer Chris Vogt-Hennessy.
Chris Vogt-Hennessy: Why do you write, what draws you to it, and where do your characters come from?
Lauren Grodstein: I think I write because I’m an inveterate liar — or rather, I just love to make things up, not out of malice, but just out of a sense of what the universe could look like if I was in charge of it. Other worlds, other possibilities. Also, I like language. And I like to read. And so I’m just sort of compelled to write down stories every so often, and I sit down and I do.
Characters will just start speaking to me — they’ll have stories, voices, almost fully-formed. Where do they come from? Bits and scraps of things I overhear, or maybe stuff I see in my friends, my family, the people I pass on the street, I don’t know. I’m kind of a scavenger.
CVH: Is there anyone in your family that you credit with developing your sensibilities as a writer?
LG: My grandmother was a great letter writer, but I didn’t know that until I was already a writer myself and she and I started corresponding the old-fashioned way, with paper and stamps. My mother is a painter, but again, I didn’t associate her artistic streak with my own until I was a practicing writer. So although my family liked and appreciated the arts and literature, they never pushed me toward them. I think writing was just one of those things I did — there were soccer kids, and drama kids, and gymnastics kids, and I was a writing kid.
CVH: You attended Columbia for graduate school; how important was the school — or New York City, your peers and professors — in your development as a writer?
LG: So, so, so important. My Columbia friends from both undergrad and grad days remain my core advisers, readers, therapists, etc. Binnie Kirshenbaum mentored me throughout grad school and continues to do so in ways both large and small. She reads my drafts, suggests great books — recently See Under: LOVE by David Grossman and History by Elsa Morante — tells her editor friends to check out my work, and reminds me, when I’m feeling insecure about my production, that all writers have felt this way and that I won’t feel this way forever. In return for this love and support, all she asks is that I help out the young writers whom I care about. In her honor, that’s what I try to do.
CVH: Does your teaching at Rutgers University ever inform your writing life? Do the two roles of teacher and writer ever intersect?
LG: I love teaching writing. I love the interaction with people, I love the opportunity to get out of my own head for a while, I love the class full of smart, eager young writers, I love taking a shower for a good reason. Love the health care benefits.
CVH: You have a 19-month-old son at home yet you’ve managed to create and write an entire other world into existence. And you’ve seen that world go into print. What helps you keep your equilibrium while writing, teaching, book touring, mothering, wife-ing? Can you offer any suggestions or tips for other working mothers?
LG: Find the most supportive partner you can, and then find back up — the most adaptable babysitters, dependable daycare providers, loving parents, patient friends, generous siblings. Surround yourself with a community of people who will be there for you if and when you need them — and don’t be afraid to ask for them when you need them! Pay the ones that need to be paid as much as you can afford so that they’re apt to stick around. Let them know you appreciate their help. Be grateful for them, and make your best use of the free time they give you.
Ever since I had my son I’ve felt keenly the isolation and the “your child, your problem” attitude that comes with the American stance on parenting. I can’t bear it. I do my best to combat it by finding as many people as I can to lean on, and pay them back either in cash or by being as helpful and useful as I can be when I can be.
I’m still looking for inspiration everywhere, and still finding it, or maybe even finding more of it than I used to (a baby introduces a whole new set of characters into your life) — now there’s just less time to write about all the new things in my life.
CVH: The first book you wrote is a collection of short stories (The Best of Animals), but your next two (Reproduction is the Flaw of Love and A Friend of the Family), are novels. Do you prefer working in the longer form of the novel?
LG: I like them both, but novels are more sale-able. Still, perhaps just because you can see the finish line a lot sooner, nothing is quite as satisfying as creating a good short story (which, by the way, I’ve only started doing again recently after years of concentrating on the novel).
CVH: Do you read other writers to influence your current work and as a source of inspiration or stimulation? What writers have influenced you most and who are you reading now?
LG: Always — just about everything I read I’m looking to be inspired, looking to learn. I read a lot of Richard Ford — Lay of the Land, Independence Day, The Sportswriter — when I was writing my most recent book. Right now I’m reading Blue Angel by Francine Prose, which was sitting on the nightstand in the guest room of a friend of mine when I was visiting last week. I picked it up, read a few pages, and have been reading it sporadically ever since. But since I’m rarely reading one thing at a time, I’m also re-reading Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, which is his marvelous first novel told in first person plural — I’m teaching it in my graduate creative writing class this week. And also The New Yorker as well as student fiction.
CVH: How was writing this novel similar or different than writing your first novel?
LG: It was easier, although Reproduction is the Flaw of Love wasn’t too hard to write either. It was the 500-page, three-year fiasco in the middle that was impossible to write, and, ultimately, a miserable experience. I was trying to write a White Teeth-like saga of four different families in the New Jersey suburbs, scrambling around plot lines, going back and forth in time. Some of the material worked, but a lot of it was overwrought or just plain incomprehensible. I was unwilling to let it go, however, so the more twisted the story became, the more fiercely I kept writing. Eventually, my agent — who’s also a dear friend — told me, gently, that perhaps I should turn my attention to something else. I moped for seven months, and then one day I woke up with narrator Pete Dizinoff’s voice in my head. I do think that writing that first terrible book, which was set in the same geographic and emotional terrain as Friend, prepared me to tackle Friend — I just didn’t know it at the time. Throwing out that manuscript would have been so much easier if I had known what was coming next!
CVH: From your first short story collection, The Best of Animals, to your second book, Reproduction is the Flaw of Love, and now in your third novel you’ve chosen the voice of a male protagonist. I’m wondering about the differences, if any, that you find when employing a female or a male perspective of the world.
LG: Truth be told, there isn’t much of a difference, as far as I’m concerned. I think we all experience things like love, heartbreak, grief, excitement pretty similarly. The language we use to express them might be a bit different, but any writer should be able to inhabit another character and his or her language, regardless of gender.
CVH: What motivated you to write a story centered on the collapse of a family? Do you have any thoughts regarding the collapse of the American family? Do you think the family unit has changed in your own lifetime?
LG: I’m always writing about family in one way or another. These are the relationships that interest me most, parents and children, husbands and wives. I’m lucky in that I come from an intact family, with very few divorces among my aunts and uncles and cousins — lots of two parent households in my childhood. So the collapse of a family feels for me like a good place to write fiction, since I don’t write plot from personal experiences (if I did, I’d be more worried about making it accurate than about making it interesting). If I came from a troubled family I probably would have written about a happy one, so that I could invent all that I didn’t know.
CVH: What kind of research did you have to do for this novel? Was it disruptively overwhelming or did it help facilitate the draft?
LG: I love research, and yes, I can get so invested in research that I stop working on the actual novel writing. To write Friend, I had to research all kinds of medical information, and had to research the way doctors talk to one another by interviewing them, listening in on their conversations, asking them to read sample dialogue. I also had to research neonaticide, which was morbidly fascinating, and spent fruitful hours talking to an expert on the subject and then reading everything about it that I could. And then small things: researching Yonkers, and what it might have been like in the 1960s, and Pitt, where nobody I know went to college, and where bluefish swim, and what breast cancer medications were available in 2001, and what kinds of goats produce the most milk — all my characters know more about these issues than I do, so I had to look a lot up.
CVH: Lauren, the book has dark moments and at times a bleak worldview. What do you hope readers take away from your book? A warning? An escape? An experience? Do you feel that the function of literature is to awaken readers or bring awareness to a particular audience?
LG: I don’t worry about the function of literature except when I’m teaching English lit, and even then I don’t worry about it a great deal (although I force my students to!). I write a story to tell a story. I hope the readers find the story engaging and want to finish it, and maybe recommend it to their friends. I’m not being snarky here, by the way. I try not to burden myself with too many philosophies or goals when I’m writing except the simple goal of finishing the work.
CVH: In a conversation between the characters Laura Stern and protagonist Pete Dizinoff, a 30-year-old Laura says to Pete, “High school can be so hard. It kills me how little adults remember it, or how they try to glorify it.” Do you think parents typically misunderstand their children’s experience of school, particularly of high school?
LG: Sure — it’s embarrassing to me how little I remember of it myself, and it was, what, 15 years ago? But we often diminish teenagers and what they go through (when we’re not aggrandizing it, or pathologizing it) and I’m no better or different — I look at high school as a brief moment in a life, and therefore how could anything that happens there matter so much? But of course it does.
CVH: In a debate over their son Alec’s future, Pete’s wife Elaine says, “All I’m saying is I want Alec to be happy. If he were gay, it would be — well, it would be an interesting thing to adjust to. And of course if it were up to me, I’d like to see him happily married with a family of his own. That’s my idea of happiness. But it might not be his idea of happiness. So what do you want me to say?” Even though Pete realizes his own idea of happiness differs from his son’s, Pete repeatedly interferes and meddles with his son’s life plans. To what extent do you think American parents push their own expectations of success and happiness onto their children?
LG: Depends on the parent, right? But I think the happiest parents (who probably have the happiest children) are the ones who can separate themselves the most from their kids’ ideas of happiness and let them find their own joy. I already know this is harder than it seems.
CVH: The events of the novel blur the lines between who is perceived as the “good” and “bad” characters. In one sense, Pete, the good doctor, plays the villain and Laura, the ruthless baby murderer, plays the victim. Did your initial intentions for the roles of these characters evolve throughout the writing process?
LG: I think it did, although originally I wanted the characters to be more themselves — Pete more wronged, Laura more evil, etc. Editing and sharing the drafts with trusted readers (mostly friends from my MFA days) helped me make these characters more complex.
CVH: In most of the intimate relationships in the novel one person seems to have a clear advantage. This is the partner that calls the shots, while the other is happy enough to call it love. Do you think one person always has the power in a relationship or do you think it fluxes and flows back and forth for most couples?
LG: Oh gosh, I don’t know. To me the person who has the power in the relationship is the one who decides when everyone has to get out of bed in the morning. These days, that would be my 19-month-old son.
CVH: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
LG: I think I would have been a physician, probably a psychiatrist. I like people and their stories, hearing them, rearranging them. And I have doctors in my family, so medical school seemed like a reasonable thing to pursue. But then I would have had to pass organic chemistry, which would have been, as the French say, pretty fucking unlikely.
CVH: Do you have another work in progress? New projects in the pipeline?
LG: Dude, my only project right now is getting my kid to sleep past five in the morning.