Lauren Groff on Climate Change and Ugly Feelings
The author of ‘Florida’ on using dread to create effective fiction
When someone handed me a copy of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, I shut out the world and consumed it in long, luxurious gulps. Since then, I have been waiting for the next book from Groff with an anticipation I can only liken to something like waiting for summer in the middle of February.
Now, summer has arrived and so has Florida, Lauren Groff’s latest story collection. Each story in Florida, peels up a pretty rug to reveal a teeming tangle of questions. The stories give voice to how our minds consume us and create us. There are whispering ghosts, rotting friendships, and yawning children to reckon with. But Florida also explores how the external world, one we have trampled over, is devastated by our rapid, mindless consumption — filled with hungry panthers, poisonous snakes, and screaming weather patterns. The landscapes in the short stories are silty, rich, sun-bleached, cold as stone. They are strong characters of their own that will not be ignored.
Roping through these stories were two imposing topics we might want to run away from—ugly feelings and climate change — one an internal hole of despair, the other, external. But in Florida, Groff makes these two topics speak to each other, creating in each story a tense conversation about how we feel the beauty, confront the ugly, and why we have to do both.
I corresponded with Lauren Groff over email to talk about climate change, ugly feelings, and where hope lives in her writing practice.
Erin Bartnett: You write so beautifully, perceptively, about the way fear — and its friends anxiety, shame, dread, and impending doom — stalk us. There are a lot of reasons to be afraid in 2018, and for me, the fear can be totally paralyzing. Where does fear live in your writing process? How do you channel fear as an emotion in your writing without letting it paralyze you?
Lauren Groff: I think often about how we are taught from a very early age to be repelled by ostensibly negative emotions like fear, doubt, rage, shame, vindictiveness, and on and on. Strong emotions like these are seen to be ugly, and are particularly undesirable for women to show. But these emotions are some of the most powerful motivators for good in the world: there is nothing like the cold clarity of focused rage to spur our better angels on.
Also, if you wait for happiness, love, or joy to motivate your work, you’d be lucky to be able to write one novel’s worth of good sentences in a lifetime, mostly because joy comes from the very moment of living, and writing comes from stillness and reflection (you can find joy within the stillness and reflection, but it’s a product of the moment, not the bright source of the moment).
I think some of the answer is to make the emotion intentional, to take a long look at your dread or your shame — whatever beasts you’re fighting — to square yourself to them, invite them into the work, and then let their energy spur you.
Strong emotions are seen to be ugly, and are particularly undesirable for women to show. But these emotions are some of the most powerful motivators for good in the world.
EB: One of the biggest things I noticed in this collection, was where you planted fear and let it grow. In some stories, it appeared to be a concrete object, animal, or place that we can point out and move away from. But in most stories, the fantasy that our fears are something we can contain and run from or mask behind something else proves to be false — fear can’t be contained in those objects, animals, or places — and for that reason, is more dangerous. One of the most profound examples, I think, is in “The Midnight Zone” — a story about a mother and her two sons, in a house stalked on the perimeter by overgrown scrub and a hungry Florida panther. How did you go about planting fear in the landscapes of these stories?
LG: The feeling that you’re calling fear here I think I might shift a little to one side and call dread — fear seems to be a manifestation in the body of externally imposed anxiety, which can act on the brain; dread is more surreptitious and psychic, more of a foundational or underlying feeling, which comes from a less clearly identifiable place and imposes itself on the body and the world at large. Fear can be a logical response; dread is often projected onto the world by the person who bears it. I think in these stories, dread is like a lens that falls over the eyes of the characters and imposes itself on what they see.
Take a long look at your dread or your shame — whatever beasts you’re fighting — to square yourself to them, invite them into the work, and then let their energy spur you.
EB: That’s a really useful clarification, which makes me think more about how you oriented the perspective in these stories — the way internal observations shape the external realities. Many of the short stories in this collection are written from the perspective of unnamed narrators, who are in one way or another alone (whether that loneliness is caused by anxiety, severe weather, a breakup, or a little bit of all three.) How did the perspective of the unnamed narrator figure into your stories?
LG: The desire to communicate is the wish to leap over my own loneliness and visit you in yours. All these years that I’ve lived in Florida, I have been immersed in the strange loneliness of a family, where you can touch other humans all day long, wiping bums and noses and hands, sometimes even creating your own future friends inside your body, and yet you can still feel like you’re standing on an iceberg in the Arctic. The unnamed solitary narrator was probably a projection of this iceberg feeling.
EB: Florida obviously holds a titular role in the collection, but I was really struck by the ways you make the realities of climate change come to life. I was hoping you could comment on how elements of climate change are woven into your stories. Neither polemical or apocryphal, it’s just there. In some stories, the concept of climate change is enough to cause anxiety, but in others, storms and snakes and sinkholes are very concrete forces of nature. There’s this book by Rob Nixon (maybe you’ve read it?) called Slow Violence, in which Nixon argues that climate change moves at a pace that doesn’t work for quick, image-inspired political activism — but your work definitely challenges that. How do your short stories convey the violence, and accumulative damage of climate change? Do you think we need to fear or dread climate change in order to make us change our ways?
LG: I love Rob Nixon very much, and this is something I’ve been struggling with mightily. To complicate things even further, we have sped geologic changes up to a human timeline, but we have all collectively somehow decided to react to climate change with geologic slowness. It’s perverse.
I’m wary of polemical fiction because it’s too much of a blunt instrument; the most effective fiction works because it’s indirect and uses layering and atmosphere and suggestion. The question is how to go about talking about climate change by using a scalpel, not a hammer to do so, which is extraordinarily difficult to do. Dread is useful; since it’s an outward projection, it can encompass the reality that nature is in fact robust, nature wants to thrive, and if humanity committed fully to trying to mitigate climate change, we could do so, and with some ease. Dread can have hope and movement in it, not ataxia and flight.
EB: With that in mind, I want to turn to Florida. In the “Flower Hunters” the narrator describes Florida as “A damp dense tangle. An Eden of Dangerous Things.” I understand you live in Florida — and maybe have a complicated and intimate relationship with the setting — but what is it about Florida that created the fodder for writing about climate change?
LG: My part of Florida doesn’t have the big, operatic seasons I grew up loving in New York; it has dozens of tiny micro-seasons based on what plants are in bloom at any time. Changes in the landscape are subtler, and I run nearly every day out on the prairie, so it’s easier for me to actually see the swift onset of climate change with my own eyes. I’m reminded every single day how we’re destroying this place. Sea-level changes are going to sink Miami in the not-distant future; salt-water incursions into the aquifer are going to be gigantic problems for human life on this gorgeous peninsula. It’s pretty hard to ignore.
I’m reminded every single day how we’re destroying this place.
EB: I want to return to the idea you raised earlier— the idea that dread can have hope in it is fascinating to me. It also makes me think more about how survival changes the way your characters relate to emotions like dread, fear, anxiety. In a few of your stories in particular, there are women and children in literal survival mode: whether they are young children abandoned on an island, destitute and then homeless graduate students, or widowed women confronting a powerful storm in the company of ghosts. What I noticed about those stories in particular was that emotions like fear and dread kind of drain out and observation becomes so heightened, the world becomes nearly surreal. How does survival change the way the characters relate to the world around them in your stories?
LG: I wonder if it isn’t a little bit like making a decision on the top of the roller coaster to just relax the body into a kind of boneless pudding: you’re still plummeting downward, but because you’re not seizing up, the fear transmutes to something kept at a distance from your body, something that slows time down and allows you to see individual faces in the crowd below and the texture of the hair of the girl in the seat in front of you.
EB: In “Ghosts and Empires,” the narrator describes her relationship to reading: “I read and savagely mourn, as if reading could somehow sate this hunger for grief, instead of what it does, which is fuel it.” In “Flower Hunters” the narrator is obsessed with the 18th century naturalist writer, William Bartram: “She buries her failure in this, as she buries all her failures, in reading.” And in “Yport” the narrator travels to France for research on Guy de Maupassant because at one point his work had made her feel “less alone, less inept” but his work has not aged well, the times “too troubled” and “urgent.” What role does reading play in your own work, and do you think it helps distract us from those ostensibly negative emotions or does it make us confront them?
LG: It’s a struggle right now. Part of me only wants to escape, to read for entertainment, which means literature that just reinforces what I already know of the world — what people actually want when they grumble that a character isn’t “relatable.” But I feel that navel-gazing in times like these is cowardly (I’m speaking only for me — I don’t judge anyone else for their hungers), and I know that I need to be invested in the kinds of questions that seriously grapple with the problems of our time, to be unsettled and uncomfortable, to see the world made strange. That means I need to read art. But art sometimes takes a lot more energy than I have at the end of a day or of a string of days in which the news hits like a 2-by-4 to the face. The ideal would be to find a book that miraculously does both, that seduces you into a brisk sail of entertainment while actually setting off a set of torpedoes under the surface of the water.