Author Alum Writes Her Way to the Top
Issue   |   Fri, 10/18/2013 - 00:23
Photo Courtesy of Lauren Groff

Asked to reflect on her most memorable moments at Amherst, writer Lauren Groff ’01 immediately recalled one cold spring morning at crew practice when coach Bill Stekl gave her the motivation she needed to start rowing for the day.

“There was this beautiful backlit fog rising off the river, and the banks were just pearly and beautiful, and it felt almost impossible to get our bodies moving in the cold,” Groff said. “And Bill from his boat into his microphone shouts, ‘You can do anything — just do it slowly enough!’ And it’s almost been my motto in life. You can do anything. You just do it slowly enough.”

In some ways, this seems an apt description of Groff’s writing career. Both her critically acclaimed novels, "Arcadia" and "Monsters of Templeton," are the products of years of intensive research, discarded drafts and careful revision, as well as a lifetime of fierce devotion to reading and writing. After college, she worked at a series of what she calls “terrible jobs” — including bartending and telemarketing — before finally being able to devote her life to writing full-time.

In other ways, though, Groff’s success has been anything but slow. After less than a semester of graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s MFA program, she sold a story to the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, and six months after the story was published, she sold her first novel, "Monsters of Templeton" (2008) — all before her 30th birthday. She quickly followed "Monsters," a New York Times bestseller, with the story collection "Delicate Edible Birds" (2009). Last year’s "Arcadia," another New York Times bestseller, was declared a best book of 2012 by the New York Times, the Washington Post and NPR, among many other publications.

A Shy Childhood

Despite all this critical acclaim, Groff remains modest.

“I don’t feel like they’re successful at all,” Groff said of her books. “They always fall short of the mark that I want them to hit.”

She rarely reads reviews of her own work, and she says that her main focus is always on making the next book better.

Groff’s modesty and wariness about publicity reflect characteristics that have been with her since childhood. Her mother, Jeannine Groff, described her as “modest and a little bit shy,” while Groff herself admitted to being “pathologically shy as a kid.”

“She was so quiet and introspective as a baby that we had her checked out by a pediatrician,” said Groff’s father, Gerald. Instead of opening outward, the young Groff cultivated a lively internal world, fueled by her passion for reading whatever she could get her hands on.

“Books were far more vivid to me than people,” Groff said. Growing up in Cooperstown, N.Y., she would make daily trips to the library, reading everything from "The Hobbit" to Jane Austen.

“I really read everything, and I didn’t understand most of it,” Groff admitted. “You read Jane Austen when you’re eight, and you’re not going to get the sort of social niceties, but you’re bathed in the precise language and the sensibility, and that’s what matters. I guess it’s the tone that matters at that point.”

The Path to Publication

Although on one level she’d always known she wanted to be a writer, “It’s one of those things that takes a lot of courage to say to your family, especially, but also to yourself,” Groff said.

After a gap year abroad in Nantes, France, she enrolled at Amherst, where she was excited to discover a deeper style of close reading than she’d been exposed to before. Although at one point she considered a career as a pediatrician, Groff realized that the humanities were her true love, and she went on to become a double major in English and French. She cited French Professor Leah Hewitt’s autobiography class as one of her most influential during her time at the College.

“She just seemed delighted to be learning, thinking and imagining,” Professor Hewitt said of Groff. “She brought out from behind a modest demeanor a final project that was wildly playful, critically sophisticated and showed a rich literary and artistic imagination that foreshadowed her successful career as a writer.”

“I just loved college,” Groff said. “It was just a feeling of being coddled and beloved in a community where people had the same sorts of ideas and goals. I think that I’m always trying to go back to that place.” Groff described community as one of her “obsessions” as a writer, and said she found a similarly nurturing community in graduate school.

It took three years of unsatisfying jobs to get there, however. In addition to her stints as a telemarketer and bartender (“I was, like, the world’s worst bartender. I was really horrible,” Groff said), she also spent time working at the Sierra Club and in an administrative position at Stanford. This time in California would eventually provide inspiration for Groff’s first published novel, "Monsters of Templeton."

The novel takes place in what Groff describes in the author’s note as a “slantwise version” of her hometown of Cooperstown. She explains that the project grew out of her “wanting to wake up every day in Cooperstown,” a homesickness that developed after many long, lonely days spent working at Stanford. She continued working on "Monsters" after she enrolled at the MFA program at University of Wisconsin-Madison, sometimes becoming so intensely involved in her work that she would spend eighteen hours a day writing. It was not long after this that her writing career took off, and her Atlantic Monthly story garnered the attention of Bill Clegg, the man who would eventually become her agent.

“When her agent first saw a story she wrote for The Atlantic Monthly and asked to represent her, she demurred,” remembered Groff’s husband, Clay Kallman ’00, whom she met while rowing at Amherst. “He then jumped on a plane and flew out to meet her in person and she still grilled him for hours to be sure he would help sell [the] novel.”

Clegg eventually did help Groff to sell "Monsters," which was received with critical praise and appeared on multiple bestseller lists.

A “Third Child”

Even now, having achieved much greater success, Groff retains the same sense of protectiveness over her work. She says that whatever novel she is working on at the moment feels like a “third child” — her two others are sons, ages two and five.

“When I married my husband, I said — I don’t actually necessarily believe in marriage, but I said okay, given these conditions,” Groff said. “One condition is that when we have kids, you’re going to be the primary caregiver to the kids … and the other thing is, I will not have any shame or guilt about my child-raising, because I feel like shame and guilt are the ways that a woman artist keeps herself from actually doing what she needs to do.”

Groff and her husband have established a routine wherein Kallman wakes up their sons, feeds them breakfast and takes them to school, while Groff works on her writing. Groff then spends the evening with their sons, and after they go to bed, she takes time to think about what she’s written during the day and what she plans to write tomorrow.

“I feel like you have to protect this space around your work so fiercely and sort of resist the societal urge to make mothers feel bad for their decisions,” Groff explained.

Groff, Kallman and their sons now live in Gainesville, Fla., near Kallman’s family, who help to take care of the children.

It was in Gainesville that Groff’s second novel, "Arcadia," was born. The novel begins in the late 1960s and centers on Bit Stone, the first child born in Arcadia, a fictional utopian commune in upstate New York. Groff first got the idea from the novel when she started researching happiness shortly after moving to Gainesville.

“I was deeply, deeply depressed in pregnancy,” Groff said. “I guess I just don’t do well with the hormones. The world just felt like it was falling apart. And it may still be, but I guess I’m not paying as much attention.”

Part of Groff’s unhappiness stemmed from her isolation in Gainesville, where she knew no one other than Kallman and his parents.

“I started to do research about happiness because I was so deeply sad, and then I started to do research about people who tried to create their own happiness,” Groff said, explaining how this line of inquiry led her to become interested in utopias and intentional communities.

Publicity and Acclaim

Ultimately, "Arcadia" proved even more successful than Groff’s last two books, winning widespread publicity and numerous critical accolades. For the self-described introvert, one might think all this attention would be hard to take. Indeed, the reviews still make Groff uncomfortable.

“You put your baby in the middle of a coliseum, and people have either a rock or a rose in their hand, and they can throw the rock or they can throw the rose. And you’re like, ‘It’s my baby, don’t throw anything!’” Groff said, describing the review process, which she calls “painful.”

Still, despite her introversion, Groff has another side to her personality, one that her father recalled emerged when she was a teenager.

“In adolescence she developed seemingly opposite, contrary forces,” Gerald Groff said. “She grew tall and strong, opinionated, passionate and selectively assertive. The Homecoming Queen, Outward Bound adventurer and exchange student to France appeared to be another person.”

“In many respects, she is our yin-yang child,” he reflected, discussing a double-sidedness that seems to exist in Groff to this day. Although she knows some writers who have “breakdowns” after a tour, Groff genuinely enjoys herself while she’s promoting a book.

“When she is out on tour, a different part of her emerges,” her mother observed. “This public part of her is exciting, funny, smart and charming.”

Groff agreed that she seems to transform during book tours.

“You put on a nice dress and some makeup and then suddenly you’re a different person,” Groff said. “And you have a glass of wine and go on and you’re fine! You get to the point where it’s just a performance, as opposed to who you are as a person, so it becomes really fun.”

In the end, though, despite Groff’s charismatic stage presence, her mother observes that she seems most in her element when she’s alone at home, writing. Behind the crowd-pleasing adult author, it’s still easy to see the shadow of the shy little girl who preferred books to people.

“I can’t write when I’m out on tour,” Groff mused. “That’s the most essential part of me, so it’s difficult.”