Thursday, March 9, 2017
What would you do if you felt you were losing what you loved most? New York Times Bestselling author Lauren Grodstein talks about her devastatingly wonderful new novel, OUR SHORT HISTORY, the mother/son bond, politics, crying while writing, and more
I first met Lauren Grodstein at one of my very first Algonquin events--oh, let's say, 5 years ago? Six?--I was terrified and Lauren was warm, funny and I made a fast friend. She's truly amazing. Who else gets Stephen King (!) to interview her for her astonishing New York Times Bestseller, A Friend of the Family? Who else troops out to Hoboken from Brooklyn just to have chocolate croissants and coffee with me at ChocoPain? And who else is always, always there to comfort, support, cheer, and everything else a friend does?
Lauren is a remarkable writer, (Her last book, The Explanation for Everything, was a Washington Post Book of the Year) and Our Short History had me sobbing. Lauren knows exactly what it is to be a mother. Exactly what it is to face devastating loss. Exactly what it is to realize that maybe you are not so sure of things after all.
And I'm not the only one who adores this novel.
"It’s admittedly early in 2017, but I suspect that this may well wind up as one of the best novels of the year. Highly recommended." - Blogcritics.org
"(A) heartbreaking, character-driven story is told in the remarkable, believable voice of a courageous, sympathetic character." - Library Journal (starred review)
“Karen is a character many will love—determined, flawed, loving, witty. . . . a poignant and realistic portrait." - Kirkus Reviews
“In Our Short History, Lauren Grodstein breaks your heart, then miraculously pieces it back together so it’s bigger--and stronger--than before. This novel will leave you appreciating both the messiness of life and the immense depths of love.” —Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You
“Funny and fast-paced and extraordinarily insightful on every page . . . Anyone lucky enough to get roughed-up by Grodstein's devastating, fearlessly honest, often hilarious, gorgeously written novel will exit it changed.” —Karen Russell, author of Vampires in the Lemon Grove
“Lauren Grodstein has written a book with such a complicated range of emotion that I can't quite understand how she did it. In highlighting the fragility and depth of the relationship between a parent and a child, Grodstein miraculously makes you love the complexity of this world even as it tears you apart." —Kevin Wilson, author of Perfect Little World.
I'm so happy to be hosting her, here. The only thing better would be more chocolate croissants and coffee with her. Thank you, thank you, Lauren!
I always want to ask the “why now” question. What was it rumbling around in you that made you absolutely need to write this particular book?
I started writing the book when my son was four, which is a very wonderful and particular age: four is when kids stop being so physically fragile, so needy - they can start doing basic things (brushing their teeth, putting on pants) by themselves. That year I was struck by the separation that was starting between me and Nathaniel, since I had been, until that point, such a physically full-on mom. What I mean is that - contrary to all my predictions and all my expectations about myself - I nursed that kid until he was two, I slept next to him most nights, I carried him in my arms until he weighed forty pounds or more. I traveled solo with him and made him special dinners and played the songs he liked on the radio over and over. We spent a lot of time together. And then he turned four, four and a half, and started showing glimmers of having his own life that didn’t always include me. I felt a tiny bit liberated, but also a tiny bit evicted from this weird codependent physical all-encompassing thing we’d built together. And I started thinking about what it would be like to be separated from him not just by the normal and wonderful fact of his growing up, but by something much darker. How would I feel if I knew a separation were to be permanent? What would happen if one of us were terminally ill? I wanted to write about that, but there was no way I could imagine, even for a work of fiction, what would happen if a small child were terminally ill, so I had to stick it to the mom.
Throughout the book, there is a story about politics and who we become and why—and it’s eerily prescient to what was going on in our election. Can you talk about that please?
I’ve always used my books to try on different jobs that I might have had if I hadn’t decided to be a writer. In A Friend of the Family, I took on the voice of a physician, and in The Explanation for Everything I wrote about a biologist. In another life where I was better at chemistry, I would have probably gone into science or medicine. But I’ve also always loved politics, and have always been pretty politically active - protesting and writing letters and sending money and nagging my Congresspeople. I started writing this book at the start of Obama’s second term, a time that seemed incredibly complicated to me in terms of our national leadership. I wanted to dig into what politics looks like behind the scenes, so I decided to give Karen a job I would have enjoyed in a different life.
Karen talks about Jake being hers, and hers alone, but isn’t part of being a mother knowing that from the moment they are born, they are moving away from you? There is something both tragic and wonderful about that.
I think it takes a little while to come to terms with that. For me, at the start, motherhood was so overwhelming that if you’d told me I wouldn’t always be entirely beholden to this irrational lunatic baby - I just wouldn’t have believed you. And I would be lying if I said it was easy at first; it just wasn’t. And it wasn’t easy at second or third. When my son was three, I’d see pregnant mothers with their toddlers and feel so totally inadequate: here were these women capable of having two when I was still barely coming to grips with my one!
What I didn’t comprehend at the time was how all that completely exhausting caregiving was just reinforcing how much I loved my kid. There was something, I think, in the full-throttled nature of the way parenting hit me (and the fact that I seemed incapable of worrying less, doing less, trying less hard) that lined and then underlined my passion for this child. And so again, as he started growing up, started making friends on his own, having his own jokes, his own games that didn’t require my help - as relieved as I was to be able to breathe a little bit, I was also rocked by how much I already missed him.
Now my son is eight, and he has an entire universe that is his, that I don’t know everything about. This is as it should be. But sometimes he still crawls into my bed at night, and that’s fine with me too. I know it won’t last forever. I try not to miss it while it’s still happening.
I loved the feeling of the world at large, the things that matter, the difference between being loved and having power, between losing a first love and having a last one—for Karen, it’s her son. Why do you think it takes us all so long to realize these things?
I don’t know if most of us really do realize the arc of our lives. I think about my grandfathers, for instance, whose lives roughly coincided with the 20th centuries - they were both born to immigrant parents during the Wilson administration, suffered through the Depression, served in World War 2, worried about their sons going to Vietnam, made money, became grandparents, died at ripe old ages. Did they know that their lives were paralleling the great American century? Could they have known that what they accomplished would rapidly become impossible for the generations that followed? I doubt it. I think they lived their lives with as much intention as they had time for, and felt lucky and deserving in equal measure. That’s how I live too, and that’s how, in Our Short History, Karen lived - until her illness. And now that she’s dying, she’s forced to reckon with her life and the big love of her life, and she’s trying to be intentional and thoughtful - but of course she’s failing all the time.
How in the world did you write this novel without weeping?
Oh Caroline, I cried like a baby.
I want to talk about the structure of the book, which is Karen’s letter to her son. It’s funny because I have a letter I’ve written to my son on my desktop, in case something happens to me. It’s all the things I’ve wanted him to know. But in writing to one person, we discover things about ourselves—and I loved what Karen discovered. But what about you? What did you discover?
I discovered - or rediscovered, I should say - how important reading is to me. Karen is my first female protagonist (this is my fourth novel) but she’s really not very much like me: she’s tougher than I am, more reckless, more independent. But one thing we have in common is how much we love to read. Karen is always leaving book recommendations for her son - everything from Hannah Arendt to The Phantom Tollbooth - and she takes great pleasure in imagining her soon reading her favorite novels one day. Like Karen, I’m a relentless reader, and one of the ways I get through tough times is by hiding in books. These days I’m reading as much sociology as I can, to try to understand this political moment - I’ve read books about the white working class in Chicago, the unemployed poor in rural California, and destitute miners in coal country. But I’ve also read some wonderful and transporting fiction, like The Vegetarian and Yellow Raft in Blue Water.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Trump, for the obvious reasons. But I’m trying to be as optimistic as I can be, and I find that, in forcing myself to be optimistic, I’ve been able to support friends and family who need supporting. That’s felt good. It’s rare that I’m the one who tells other people it’s all going to be okay (usually I’m the one with my finger on the panic button) but I’ve been glad to be of some help to the people I love who are really freaking out. I’ve also been channeling my obsession by calling and emailing my representatives, sending money to the important places (the ACLU, Planned Parenthood), and nagging other people to do the same things. I remind myself often that I wasn’t born after history - I was born in it. This is my historical moment, my moment to struggle. Nobody said it would all come to me without a fight. So if I want clean air, health care, women’s rights, immigrant rights, affordable education, government transparency, and a president I can be proud of, I will have to fight for these things. That’s okay. I can do that.
Of course when it all becomes too much I can also turn off the noise to protect myself. That’s when I go back to my novels.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Oh, you want to know a little more about my son? Well, I’ll try to keep it short. He’s smart as a whip, reliably funny, good at soccer, and blond, which truly blows my mind. When he grows up he wants to be a soccer player and/ or President. Either one is fine with me but frankly I’d prefer he was a soccer player and/ or a surgeon. Presidents these days just aren’t what they used to be.