Patrick Somerville and Lauren Groff chat about hallucinatory feelings and Groff’s new novel Arcadia.
Having missed each other by a few years in the University of Wisconsin’s English Department—Lauren Groff went to graduate school there, and I haunted the same hallways as an undergraduate half a decade before—she and I decided this spring that it was time to properly realign the chronologies of fate and double-interview one another about writing, monsters, babies, and bourbon. We both had books on the way and it seemed like a rather pleasurable way to use up several hours. The following is that conversation; it was conducted via Google Docs, its two participants often huddled in different hotel rooms across the country. It felt like it was conducted via Badger Bowl back in Madison.
And I would be remiss if I failed to point out that since we began this conversation, Lauren’s new novel Arcadia has been raved about in virtually every imaginable venue, and for very good reason. There’s a mysterious electromagnet built into exceptional novels, isn’t there? Built of whispered conversations below the conversations, constructed by the quiet confidence of an authorial intellect so sharp and strong that it has to make a world for itself. She will be embarrassed that I’ve said this, because that’s just how she is, but anyone who’s read Arcadia knows that it vibrates with that special, hard-to-pin-down power.
Patrick Somerville Lauren, to begin: since I last saw you at AWP in Chicago, I have been haunted by your choice to sing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” in the final round of Karaoke Idol, the conference’s most undignified literary event. Eight weeks out from the competition and looking back, do you feel angry about taking second place? Do you blame the judges, who had been drinking bourbon for several hours at that point?
Lauren Groff What are you saying? That I lack dignity? Please. I raise my pinkie finger to sip my tea when I’m alone. “Sweet Caroline” was clearly strategic, you know. By that ridiculous time of the night I’d lost whatever terrible voice I’d started with, and I wanted people to sing so loudly they couldn’t hear me. It almost worked! Jump-dancing was the only way to go. I mean, why take yourself too seriously? Besides, I also knew I couldn’t match Ben Percy’s insane rumble-of-God voice, so I went the transparently crowd-pleasing direction. Which makes for bad literary fiction but not terrible karaoke. Anyway, you were a judge: are you angry with yourself for choosing Percy over me? Truly, you should be.
Kathleen Alcott on adolescence and her novel The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets.
Kathleen Alcott’s debut novel, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, jumps out in a field of exceptional 2012 debuts for its formal risks, its warm humor, and its investigation of psychological hinterlands that, in my eyes, are incredibly difficult to get right on the page. Dangers tells the story of Ida and Jackson, best friends and (later) lovers who share a kind of intimacy most people never experience. They grow up together, learn the world together, and in many ways, are one another. Their love is profound, and their individuation, when it comes, is a sad and painful thing.
I talked to Alcott about coming of age stories, how images tap into old emotions, and about what comes next for a young writer with a great debut under her belt.
Patrick Somerville So Kathleen: I wanted to start by telling you that The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets stirred up at least a half-dozen very old childhood memories for me—memories that I hadn’t revisited for a decade, maybe more. A friend, for example, slipping and falling on the ice, and breaking his teeth, and me waiting there with him, his face all bloody while he cried, after his brother ran home to get his parents. Here’s another: two girls in my driver’s ed class who sat near me, but who were from a different school, and their presence in the class made every Tuesday night into an adventure of anticipation and excitement, despite the content of the class. I can’t for the life of me figure out a) why those particular memories suddenly came back to me (there are many more), and in such a rush, or b) what it was about your novel that so thoroughly activated these memories. What did you do to me? Is it just that you know something special about adolescence, and it’s a part of this book? And more: can you tell me about remembering, and what fiction is relative to the memories of the person reading?
Kathleen Alcott Let me say, first, that I’m so incredibly sorry to bring you back to your driver’s ed classroom. (On a side note, I had a driving instructor named, no joke, Carl Carlson, a twenty years sober Charlie’s Angel ex-con, who told me once that driving stoned versus driving drunk was “ . . . Darlin’, just like switching seats on the Titanic.” I never forgot that.)