More from this author → There’s just one problem—Karen is dying. I read The Nix, which was fun and nutty; and A Separation, which was pretty absorbing. Rumpus: Who inspires you? What sorts of things are different about the two POVs? Adorable baby giggles. I’ve actually been reading a lot since the presidential election—some nonfiction, to help explain the current insanity that is our American cultural landscape, but also a lot of fiction, to escape. After that—I have no idea. So then I started thinking about what else might be complicating this woman’s life, and I imagined a reappearing ex, and a disappearing job, and the book sort of took off from there. I’m so excited for it to find its readership in the world. Right now my feeling is that writers and artists have the same obligation as anyone else: to use their time, money, and talent to stand up for the America we know. I am so excited. Grodstein: I always liked writing from a male POV because it allowed me to separate myself entirely from the character. It’s a sarcastic take on politics by some chastened Obama bros (they used to call people scared of a Trump presidency “bedwetters”—but who’s soaking now, friends?). Written as a sort of extended letter to her son, Our Short History is Karen’s exploration of how to best spend her remaining time with her son, where Dave fits into Jake’s (and her) life, and the ever-shifting notions of love and family. This one, obviously, is not. As for Neulander, it’s a German-Hungarian name, which aligns with Karen’s heritage. ***
The Rumpus: How did you come up with the idea/storyline for this book? Leaving New York City to move to farm in rural Idaho. Rumpus: You’ve written several books from the male POV. It’s amusing and sometimes even reassuring, despite itself. There is something very immediate about the book; perhaps it is knowing that Karen has ovarian cancer, but Grodstein’s prose cuts to the quick and vividly sets up a story filled with colorful, thoughtful characters, a good, consistent pace, and a hook that pulls you in, before you even realize what’s happened. Although Jacob is not the same kid as my son, they do share certain similarities (a fondness for Nintendo, a keen interest in scoop-your-own-candy establishments). Rumpus: What’s up next on the horizon? Lauren Grodstein: Out of nowhere, in my late thirties, it suddenly seemed like cancer was all around me. Grodstein: We’re adopting a baby! « Previous post like this
The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #83: Lauren Grodstein
By Jaime Herndon
May 11th, 2017
After writing several books (A Friend of the Family, The Explanation for Everything) from a male point of view, Lauren Grodstein’s new novel, Our Short History, is an intimate glimpse into a woman’s life, at a critical juncture between life and death. I think about this a lot. And that means calling lawmakers, protesting, giving money to organizations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the International Rescue Committee, and refusing to acquiesce. We have a responsibility, all of us, to defend our country against an evil administration. I couldn’t stop thinking about these women; sometimes they’d be the first thing I thought about when I woke up. Grodstein: I think I imagined what I would do if this were happening to me—what I would want to say to my own son, and how I would say it. My husband. Bridge, because I was teaching it and it’s just one of my favorite novels in the world. I would probably write him a letter, or a series of letters, or—most likely, since I’m an author—I’d probably write him a book. As the bond between Jake and Dave gets stronger, Karen is faced with the fact that her time with Jake is limited, especially as her body begins to give way. Rumpus: The current political/social climate is one that we’ve never really been in before. It means “new ground,” or “new land,” which suggests, to me, Karen’s passing from life to death. What made you go with this form? I’m inspired by people who are really deliberate and careful with their lives, and people who are kind. How does this (if it does) affect the process, etc? And I reread Mrs. It is beyond exciting to see this thing that was once sort of a batshit idea in a classroom become a fully developed, beautiful and page-turning novel. Grodstein: I have so much advice, but I think my best advice is that you should only do it if it makes you happy. Jacob is, of course, a Biblical name. But Karen came to me fully formed—I knew her, I knew who she was, and I knew that, although she and I have certain things in common, we weren’t the same person. Temper tantrums. That’s the best feeling I know, and as soon as writing stops making me feel that way, I’ll stop doing it. Jaime Herndon is a writer and editor living in New York. Grodstein: I think a lot about names, and feel very strongly that naming your characters is one of the most crucial parts of the job. I myself work hard but sometimes, I admit, I do complain. Beyond that—I really don’t know. Great readers and writers I know. Rumpus: The book is structured as a letter of sorts to Jacob. My parents. Let’s go with nap time. Don’t do it because you think you’ll find some sort of gratifying success—I’ve found a bit of success in my career, and I’m very relieved by it, but the success that comes after a book is published is never as happy as the feeling of writing, of knowing you’ve written something good, of feeling like you’ve had a worthwhile day in the chair. If so, how do you decide? If I was writing about, say, a fifty-three year old male physician, I was writing about someone who was very much not me, and therefore I was free to let my imagination go wild. Another woman I knew, a talented poet, died of stomach cancer, also leaving behind little kids. An acquaintance from college died of breast cancer, leaving behind three small kids. Karen was born in the early 1970s, when there were a lot of middle-class Jewish Karens being born, and Jake was born in the late 00s, when there were lots of Jewish Jakes being born in New York. So, you know, diapers. Car seats. She graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University in 2014, and her book Taking Back Birth is forthcoming in 2016 from Microcosm Publishing. Grodstein: Man, I don’t know. I was afraid, for a long time, that if I wrote a character who shared too many of my demographics, she would end up feeling false, like a sort of stilted version of myself. My sister-in-law’s mother, who was a good friend to me, died of ovarian cancer—and then my sister-in-law’s sister was diagnosed with it. Rumpus: What advice do you have for writers? ***
Author photograph © Ken Yanoviak. Despite the looming cancer diagnosis, this is not a book about endings or death; it’s about different kinds of love, and essentially, about living. People doing surprising things—living in tiny houses all their lives and then giving millions to charity upon their deaths. Teaching poetry to people in prison and finding remarkable talent. Jake begins asking about his father, Dave, and when Karen gets in touch with him and tells him she had the baby all those years ago, he is more than happy to meet the son he didn’t even know existed; the son he couldn’t handle six years earlier. Oh, and I listen to Pod Save America as soon as a new podcast comes out. Eventually all this thinking led its way to a character, Karen Neulander, diagnosed with ovarian cancer but still very much alive—at least for the time being. Rumpus: When I mentioned the last name—Neulander—to you in a message, you replied that you chose the name deliberately. I tried watching The Santa Clarita Diet because I aspire to Drew Barrymore’s hairdo, but it was too gory. I’m as optimistic as I am scared, however, because never in my life have I seen so many people stand up for our country’s true values: inclusion, openness, and generosity. And so she was as easy to write as my male characters were. Grodstein: I’m reading a wonderful novel by a former student of mine that’s currently out with an agent. Karen Neulander, the protagonist of the novel, has a six-year-old boy, Jake, whose father hasn’t been in the picture since Karen told him she was pregnant. What must it have been like to let life go? It’s been a while, but man I miss the feeling of a soft, squishy, beautiful baby in my arms. Rumpus: What are you currently reading/listening to/watching? Names can signify everything about a character: age, race, class, aspiration. And of course I’m inspired by people who work hard and don’t complain about it. Grodstein: My son. Did you choose all of the names on purpose? To let their children go? But of course, a terminal cancer diagnosis is a situation, not a plot. Nap time, maybe? Do you think writers/artists have an obligation to do anything in this regard? So it was easy for me to imagine a mother trying to address her six-year-old, imagining him in the future, writing for the person he might become.