Life After ‘Monsters’: Lauren Groff’s Latest Novel, Arcadia, Takes Place in a Utopian Commune

‘I wanted really badly to build a community around myself’

arcadia hc Life After ‘Monsters’: Lauren Groff’s Latest Novel, Arcadia, Takes Place in a Utopian Commune

'Arcadia.' (Courtesy Voice)

Three-year-old Beckett Kallman has just figured out that his mother, Lauren Groff, writes books for a living.

“It’s a very strange feeling for him,” Ms. Groff said, in a telephone interview from her home in Gainesville, Fla. “When I put him to bed, he asks, ‘Can I read one of your books?’ And I say, ‘Not yet.’”

Undoubtedly, it will be even stranger for Beckett when he discovers that his mother’s second novel, Arcadia (Voice, 304 pages, $25.99), the story of a boy growing up in a Utopian commune, is dedicated to him. And perhaps even stranger when he learns that the little boy in question was inspired by his birth.

“The story grew as my son grew,” Ms. Groff said. “The main character has a lot of Beckett’s characteristics—I mean, they are not the same character. But it was an attempt to see the world through a boy’s eyes.”

Ms. Groff’s previous books, which include her debut novel, 2008’s The Monsters of Templeton and her short story collection, 2009’s Delicate Edible Birds, are told from a decidedly female point of view—which is not to say they are chick lit. Her heroines are feisty misfits more likely to be interested in history or sports than shopping and romance. She is sometimes compared to her former mentor and teacher, Lorrie Moore, but unlike Ms. Moore’s darkly realistic stories, Ms. Groff’s often have a hint of the fantastic. Fittingly, one of her earliest champions was Stephen King, who praised The Monsters of Templeton in an Entertainment Weekly column, describing it as a novel “full of magic, mystery, and monsters” and even comparing it to the Harry Potter series.

“I got lucky,” Ms. Groff said of the King endorsement, and of the events leading up to it. “Well, I worked hard, too,” she conceded. “But when I sold Monsters it really blew the top of the skull off. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I was going to have an audience.”

Monsters went on to become the rare literary novel that is both a critical and commercial success, but in the years leading up to its publication Ms. Groff faced so much rejection that she was wary of even describing herself as a writer. As an undergraduate, she told friends she planned to become a pediatrician, even as she took few science courses—and wrote short stories in her spare time. Upon graduation, she began to write what she now describes as “training novels,” taking various dead-end jobs to support her scribbling habit. But that lifestyle eventually grew wearying, and she enrolled in an MFA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Ms. Moore, her idol, taught.

The pressure of submitting to Ms. Moore, combined with the harsh Wisconsin winters, which kept her indoors, drove Ms. Groff to write “a lot a lot a lot.”

“It was a pivotal moment in my life,” she said.

“I became Lauren’s thesis adviser, but she really wasn’t in need of one,” Ms. Moore told The Observer, via email. “If I tried to do anything it may have been to attempt to slow her down—she was a phenomenon of energy and inspired productivity. Luckily for the world, she didn’t listen to me.”

While in graduate school, Ms. Groff published two short stories, one of them to great acclaim in The Atlantic. “L. Debard and Aliette” is based loosely on the legend of Abelard and Heloise, as well as the real-life story of Ethelda Bleibtrey, a polio survivor who became an Olympic swimmer; its success becomes all the more remarkable when you consider that it was pulled from the slush pile. To the literary world, Ms. Groff seemed to come out of nowhere, and she was soon inundated with requests from agents, wanting to know if she had a novel. She did; while in graduate school, she had been secretly working on the manuscript that would become The Monsters of Templeton.

She ended up signing with Bill Clegg, who impressed her by flying all the way to Kentucky, where she was enjoying a postgraduate fellowship at the University of Louisville.

Mr. Clegg, who at the time was newly recovered from his now-famous stint as a drug addict, was aware that he needed to make a grand gesture to win Ms. Groff’s approval.

“I had just returned to agenting and knew I was likely not anyone’s first choice and couldn’t bear the idea of her working with someone else,” he told The Observer. “So I got on a plane.”

The Monsters of Templeton, a coming-of-age novel that tells the story of a young woman trying to discover her true parentage, takes place in Templeton, a town loosely based on Ms. Groff’s own hometown of Cooperstown, N.Y. Drawing on Cooperstown’s history, as well as the works of author James Fenimore Cooper, Monsters traces a family’s history across eight generations and incorporates a variety of  fictional historical documents including letters, photographs, and family trees. Although some critics found the book overstuffed, almost all admitted that Ms. Groff had the chops to get away with it. As this paper put it, “If she wants bells and whistles, so be it.”

Mr. Clegg compared Monsters to “L. Debard and Aliette” in its layering of fact, fiction and myth. “Both were so spooky in their ability to occupy the perspectives of a vast range of characters. And both were un-put-downable, mysterious, mesmerizing.”

In retrospect, 33-year-old Ms. Groff sees her debut as the product of her ambitious—and uneasy—20s.

“I just realized, five years later, that at its heart, Monsters is an anxious novel about legitimacy, which includes [the question], ‘Am I allowed to be a writer?’”

Her new novel is also a product of anxiety, but in this case, the anxieties surrounding new motherhood. During her first pregnancy, Ms. Groff found herself depressed at the prospect of raising a child in a world marred by war, poverty and environmental disasters. To keep her negative thoughts at bay, she threw herself into a research project about Utopian societies.