The winter is inescapable here. Half of my walls are glass, opening to a Central Park vista of naked trees with branches like grasping fingers, and down in the courtyard, even those floozies, the cherry trees, have turned spinsterish in the cold. In my modern apartment their bare limbs are doubled upon the shining walls, the stainless-steel kitchen, the mirrors. What doesn’t reflect trees reflects my face, which is not always a welcome variation. Last week, for instance, after my granddaughter visited, full of plans for her wedding and honeymoon in Argentina, I showed her a picture from my own trip so many years ago and upset her; after she left I stood for a long time palpating my cheeks, watching the woman etched in the steel elevator doors do the same.
I don’t know why I said what I did. I suppose I was piqued when she held the old photo by its edges, and said, “Oh God, Nana, you were so beautiful.”
I took the picture from her. That eighteen-year-old idiot, squinting in the Argentine sun? A pretty face, yes, a girl with a clever hand at dressing well with no money. But fat. A Wisconsin farm girl raised on apples and whole milk, a body carved out of a slick ton of butter like those statues at the state fair. “Darling,” I said, “I was a ball of lard.”
Lauren Groff was born in 1978 in Cooperstown, NY, and grew up one block from the Baseball Hall of Fame. She graduated from Amherst College and has an MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Hobart, and Five Points, as well as in the anthologies Best American Short Stories 2007, Pushcart Prize XXXII, and Best New American Voices 2008. She was awarded the Axton Fellowship in Fiction at the University of Louisville, and has had residencies and fellowships at Yaddo and the Vermont Studio Center . Lauren’s first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, published in February 2008, was a New York Times and Booksense bestseller, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers. Her second book, Delicate Edible Birds, a collection of stories which includes “Sir Fleeting,” will be out in January 2009. Both books are published by Hyperion/Voice. She lives in Gainesville, Florida with her husband, Clay, and dog, Cooper.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- LG: A large part of this story came from my own honeymoon in Argentina. We were cowering in our little hotel near Iguazu Falls while a torrential tropical rainstorm raged outside. I was pretty ill—I’m usually a vegetarian, but have a “when in Rome” policy when I travel, and my system was suffering under the slabs of meat and casks of wine I was subjecting myself to. We were sitting around feeling glum when we found the note to the guests that began, “Sir Fleeting,” and cracked up. That said, I’m still on my first husband, and he’s nothing like my narrator’s. Another part of the story came from a (very beautiful) friend of my husband’s who presents himself as an almost-mythical Euro-god; the last piece came from the park near our house where among equipment is this strange double-seesaw on a single bar. One day, I watched four kids popping up and down on the seesaw, and suddenly had the structure of my story.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- LG: I had to listen for a while before I had the voice of my narrator. At first she was much angrier, and only in later drafts did she become more rueful.
- HT: This story brings Nabokov to mind: partly because of the butterflies (“the butterflies seethed over the streets, turned buildings into shuddering things,” as you describe them—that’s a fantastic image) but partly because of the voice. The prose style in this story is dry and witty, but also florid. The hyper-precision of the language creates a sort of bravado that’s very sharp and funny. Do you find that voice leads you when you’re working? Do you generally start with voice, with characters or with an image?
- LG: Hot dog. I’d have to say that among my top twenty favorite books of all times, Nabokov wrote four: Speak, Memory, Lolita, Pnin and The Collected Stories are all tops. It’s probably because I love him so much that I write so often about butterflies and moths, though I’m no lepidopterist. I know Nabokov’s genre of hyper-stylistic prose has recently been out of vogue, but I love it too much to resist it, and find that it influences me even when I think I’m writing bone-clean prose. In fact, I thought this was one of my least florid stories (sigh). In general, though, I have an image or half of a line around which the characters slowly build. After that, I sit down and try and fail usually many times before I find a structure, which means, in this sense, not only the overall architecture of the story, but also the tone, the way the sentences build, and the pace at which the information unrolls.
- HT: The names in your stories are fantastic. What inspires you when you’re naming characters?
- LG: The name Ancel de Chair comes from my next-door neighbors when I was growing up in Cooperstown—their last name was de Chair, and I always loved that it meant “of flesh” in French. I’ve been waiting to use it for years. And I wanted the Baron’s first name to be Germanic, so I looked up a list online, and when I found “Ancel,” I liked how it sounded like “ancillary.” “Ancillary of flesh” made me laugh, so I put it in. I’ve always loved the way nineteenth-century writers played around joyously with names (Dickens, especially). In general, finding names for my characters is one of my favorite parts of writing, and if there’s an element of the ridiculous in the story, I’ll pull out all the stops.
- HT: There’s a lot of word play in this story. In addition to the torturous translation of “Señor Pasajero,” much of the sexual tension is built on word play. The story delights in words; language itself makes magic here. The magic between the narrator and de Chair is fleeting, but the words they taunted each other with lasts. Language has more permanence than anything else in this world. Is this something you were conscious of while working?
- LG: Thank you, but, no, I wasn’t at all conscious that language had more permanence in this story than anything else while I was writing it. In revision, though, I had glimmers of that idea and tried to pull it out of the text a little more.
- HT: This story takes place over about four or five decades, but despite historical elements—the section set in the Where did the idea for this story come fromCan you tell us a little about the titleWhat are you working on now0s, for example, has a description of the narrator’s job that seems true to that period—the story exhibits a sort of selective historicism which keeps it fresh. It doesn’t seem beholden to or shackled by facts and the voice is not pigeonholed in time. How do you incorporate historical research (if any) into your writing process?
- LG: Just a few weeks ago I got into trouble when at a roundtable discussion I tried to articulate my stance regarding history in writing: I said, maybe a little flippantly and referring to my own work, that I didn’t really pay a whole lot of attention to it. A historical fiction writer in the audience thought I was talking about history in general and became extremely angry. What I meant to say is that I absolutely love reading historical fiction and reading about history, but I am not a historical fiction writer and probably will never be. I think writers of historical fiction have a very serious self-imposed obligation to facts and to sources. In historical fiction, when there’s an anachronism, it’s a grave sin. I consider my first obligation to be to the story and the characters, and, for some purposes, the history becomes a bit malleable: if a detail is better for the story the way I’ve made it up, I’ll sometimes keep it the way I want it, and not the way it was in reality. I will research sometimes quite a lot to situate the story within a time-period, and I did spend a whole year in libraries for my novel, The Monsters of Templeton, but I’d never claim to be an expert in history, by any means. What I mean, I guess, is that a writer’s relationship to history seems to be a personal thing. If I do too much research, it tends to kill my story—the trick is to do just enough to feed my imagination and not so much that I end up murdering the narrative. And then I revise and revise, try to iron out all the problems, and if some still make it through, I bless the copy-editors and proofreaders of the world.
- HT: Have you ever seen a diamond like the one de Chair wears as a tie pin?
- LG: I wish.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- LG: This was a quicker story than most—from start to finish, I think I completed it in about a month. Usually I work on a dozen or so simultaneously over the span of years.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- LG: ’m trying to find the structure for a novel called Arcadia. But I can’t say any more because I’ll jinx myself.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- LG: I haven’t taught in a few years and I have so much advice building up, I’m about to pop. Here it is: Give yourself the grace of failure—most good stories are made up of hundreds of invisible previous failures; read everything you can get your grubby mitts on; excise people from your lives who bring up turmoil and darkness, then write them clean in your fiction; if you have talent, it is a gift, so try your best to honor your gift by developing it; write every single day, because if you wait for the Muse to land, she’ll cackle as she flies on by; don’t worry about publishing because if you write from a place of love and gratitude you will publish (I guarantee it); try not to listen to advice about writing because the most important things you learn are things you’ll teach yourself.