The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.
So begins the story of Willie Upton.
Lauren Groff needed four drafts and several years to discover her novel's ultimate voice and structure — a pastiche of letters and diaries, traditional first-person narrative, dramatic monologue, genealogical charts, old photographs and newspapers, literary and cultural history, even a Greek chorus.
Indeed, The Monsters of Templeton contains multitudes: literary mystery, academic comedy, ghost story, romance... and of course the monster. Such underlying complexity, and the roundabout path Groff took to create her panorama, only makes it more surprising how seamlessly the pieces fit together, and what a pleasure the book is to read.
By the time you finish, you'll add Templeton, New York, to the map of contemporary northeast literature, alongside hamlets made famous by such luminaries as John Irving and Richard Russo.
"Lauren Groff hits a home run in her first at-bat, with a novel that is intriguingly constructed and compulsively readable," the Denver Post marveled. "Groff casts an ambitious net, and it absolutely works."
Dave: First, I want to congratulate you on creating a 200-year-old monster. How cool is that? You can check it off your life's to-do list.
Lauren Groff: That I've created a monster?
Dave: Created and killed a monster.
Groff: Or did I? No, I did — but he may actually be in the lake. I firmly believe that something is in there.
It was an incredibly fun part of writing the book. I pulled from a lot of sources, a lot of online cryptozoology sites. And I made the image of Glimmey that appears in the book, too. On a rainy Wisconsin afternoon. People were peering over my shoulder as I sat in the library, putting this thing together and laughing to myself.
Dave: Monsters of Templeton includes letters and diaries, dramatic monologue, genealogical charts, photographs, old newspapers, not to mention a Greek chorus and an underwater monster, all in the service of a conventional first-person narrative.
As a reader, do you gravitate toward novels that incorporate so many different storytelling elements? Do any in particular come to mind as formative?
Groff: A few. A.S. Byatt's Possession was a wonderful literary sleuth. And I hadn't realized until I went back and read the book again, but The Stone Diaries [by Carol Shields] used a similar sort of pastiche. But this form, in Monsters, only occurred in the fourth draft. I had no idea it was coming until it hit me over the head.
Dave: Can you recall a moment when things clicked, when you were hit over the head?
Groff: It was just years and years of work. I typically start with a terrible draft and throw it away; with the ideas that I've gleaned from that, I start over again. As I said, I had to do four drafts of this. At the end of two-and-a-half years, when I stared the fourth draft of Monsters, all these ideas were circling my head, percolating.
I took some of the stuff I'd been working on for years, and I translated it into letters and diaries, forms like that.
What happened was: Willie's voice brought the monster to life. It hadn't been a tangible creature before then. That element, for some reason, was really liberating. I was able to say, I know I want to do a novel that's enormous in scope. Why does it have to be in the voice of one character? Why can't I play around and use voices from the past?
The monster itself let me say, I know that I'm not writing a genre story, but why can't I use elements of genre to make the story more energetic and alive in certain places?
That's also when the Running Buds came alive, in the fourth draft. They had only existed externally; we didn't get their actual voices.
Those changes created a panorama that I hadn't had before, which isn't really possible with one point-of-view. That's what I'd been searching for the whole way through, and I finally found it in the fourth draft.
Dave: The Running Buds are based on your father's real-life running group, right? Were they actually called the Running Buds?
Groff: They called themselves the Running Buds. It's so adorable. The individuals I write about are fiction, but yes — since I was little, these men have been running together every day. They've gotten citations from the police for running too loudly in the morning. They're hilarious.
I love them so much. All of them, excluding my dad, of course, are practically fathers to me. When we did the big book launch in Cooperstown, they were there, and they were so proud. I think they got a little misty. It was so sweet.
Dave: Primus Dwyer tells his archeology students, "Imagine human history as palimpsest upon palimpsest. The deeper you scratch, the more layers you reveal." One could make analogies in Willie's genealogical research, in the history that she unearths. But when scientists start scratching this way at Glimmey, Willie becomes very uncomfortable.
Groff: Interesting. I hadn't thought of that, but it's absolutely the case.
Dave: It's something about secrets, something about personal privacy.
Groff: It's true. She didn't want Hazel Pomeroy to write the big story of her family's existence, either. I guess there are things that are personal, things she wants to find out for herself but doesn't want to share with the rest of the world. It's a kind of romanticism.
I hadn't thought of this until just this moment, but you're absolutely right: She suddenly became possessive of the secrets and the truth and Glimmey and her own story. Huh.
Dave: The locals take on a similar, possessive air about Glimmey. When he dies, the Running Buds claim that life within the town "spirals down." There's a complicated relationship between the locals and their monster.
Groff: It is, but it's the relationship I feel to Cooperstown. That's partially because of the tourists; there's always that dichotomy between the natives and the tourists who come in and act as if they own the place. A lot of people rely on them, absolutely, for their livelihood, but there's a slight resentment.
I grew up a block and a half from the Hall of Fame. On the induction ceremony days, we'd literally have people camping in our back yard. As children, we would go down to this copse of trees called — we called it Terabithia, we were so nerdy — and after induction day we'd find all sorts of things children shouldn't find.
So, yes, there's a feeling of "this is mine" and "I know you think you own this but you don't." Just this past weekend, I was home. I have a very possessive feeling about Cooperstown, and people that I know feel that way, too. Partly, I think I wrote myself into feeling that I possess Cooperstown, which is maybe not a fair thing to say. But it's my anchor.
I feel personally insulted when things change. Growing up, there were a lot of really good stores, for example. Now, almost every single store is baseball-related. It's hard to live in a town like that. You get resentful. There's no Farm and Home anymore. There's no sewing store or dollhouse store. They've all turned into baseball stores.
Dave: Aside from changing names, how faithfully did you represent the history of the town? I know you made a lot of it up, but I wondered, for example, was there really a big fire there in 1862?
Groff: There was a big fire in 1862, thank you.
I did try to stay fairly faithful to the history of the town, primarily because I had done a lot of research. But I didn't want to be a hundred percent faithful; I wanted to cheat a little bit.
The fire was enormous. It decimated all of original Cooperstown. The Cooperstown that James Fenimore Cooper knew, and the one his father founded, looked nothing like the one that's there today. Everything had gone up haphazardly — in the middle of Pioneer Street, the Eagle Hotel jutted out ten feet into the street. It was a completely different town. It changed after the fire.
A lot of the historical stuff is inspired by, if not directly correlated to, the real Cooperstown. That said, I would never want a historian to go through and point out the differences because I'm sure I've done so many things wrong.
Dave: In her research, Willie discovers that Jacob Temple rarely wrote about women. Your novel, on the other hand, is very much about the female side of history, with Hetty and Ginger, Cinnamon and Charlotte, Elizabeth Franklin Temple, Vi and Willie and Clarissa, and so on. Not to the exclusion of men, by any means, but yours is a much rounder portrait of the town.
Groff: I'm so glad you picked up on that because that's one thing I very much intended to do. Most of the history books you read, and that really wonderful book, William Cooper's Town, they're about the men. The men are the important ones; they're the ones who left the journals that people read; they affected action. But the voices of the slaves and the servants and the women and the settlers who were there originally aren't represented, and I thought that was shameful. We can't really go back and dig them up again, but, I thought, I can. I can have them speak for themselves.
Dave: What were you doing when you read Stephen King's rave in Entertainment Weekly?
Groff: Well, someone at Hyperion had tipped me off. A proofreader had called them and asked, "Are you putting out a novel called Monsters of Templeton by a woman named Lauren Groff?" But I didn't know what that meant.
I'm a first-time author, and I'm going to confess to a shameful secret: I Google-stalked myself all through the publication. I was so nervous about what people were saying. So I saw Entertainment Weekly, and I almost simultaneously got a call from a friend who has a subscription. She said, "Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Stephen King just wrote about you in his column!" I said, "Are you kidding me?"
He had taken a story of mine for Best American Short Stories , and I knew he had a copy of the novel, but I had no idea that he was going to write about it. And so early before the publication date. It was definitely a shock.
Dave: And, just in case people might not have taken note, he wrote about it in relation to Harry Potter.
Groff: And in relation to Harry Potter! Which is hilarious. Monsters isn't at all like Harry Potter, but it's very sweet to draw a parallel.
I did get a lot of people writing, saying, "I had no idea you wrote Harry Potter novels."
Dave: Is there one rule of writing that sticks out for you, something writers are taught, that you consciously and perhaps even enthusiastically disregarded when you wrote the novel?
Groff: So many. I've taught creative writing. I joyfully broke lots of rules and then had to go back and fix things, which is probably why those rules exist.
The most basic one: Show, don't tell. I broke that all over the place in this novel. But in certain contexts, exposition is okay. At certain moments, it's important to keep the story's momentum by whatever means you can, as long as it doesn't jar.
Dave: Can you recall one author or book that made you want to be a writer?
Groff: Middlemarch. It's my favorite book of all-time. George Eliot had a depth of compassion like no one else I've read. She's able to make Bulstrode, who's a reprehensible person, into this amazingly touching, endearing person when he has his redemption. And she also creates that panoramic effect.
I first read it in high school, and I didn't really get a lot of it but I still loved it. And then I read it in college, which gave another layer to the reading. Since then I've been reading it almost every year. I feel the need to come back to it.
Dave: You have a lot of fun with names in Monsters. There's Felcher, right off. Then Peter Lieder-Pudding-and-Pie. And Remarkable Prettybones. Do you have any favorite names in literature?
Groff: Anything by Dickens. Miss Havisham. When you go back to him and read all of his fun names, it's just wonderful. Who's the woman in Portrait of a Lady? The Countess Gemini. Henry James did it well also, but he was more subtle than Dickens. An unusual name shows that a writer is having a playful moment, and that's always fun. It's a glimmer of light.
Dave: And in novels with so many characters, like Monsters, it helps readers keep them straight.
Groff: It's true. And all the people I just talked about have a lot of characters, too.
Uriah Heep is another good one.
Dave: Music, film, TV... If you're not reading, what form of entertainment are you most likely to be enjoying?
Groff: I don't have a television, not because I'm a snob or anything but because I'd be a complete addict if I had one. I love narrative. Even reality shows have narrative.
I watch a lot of movies, but books are my number one source. I'm reading a lot of Dawn Powell right now. She's my buddy.
Dave: Would you suggest starting with one of her books in particular?
Groff: I think Dance Night. It's the book that she loved the most, herself, of her own. It was written early, but it has a sort of youthfulness and joy that you don't see a lot. It's also a portrait of a small town, in Ohio. There are some melodramatic moments, but I don't mind melodrama, obviously. It's beautiful, and not at all expected, the way that it unfolds.
Dave: Is there a James Fenimore Cooper book that you actually would recommend to people?
Groff: I love the way you phrase that.
Yes, I love The Pioneers. That's the one I drew on most for Monsters. It's a wonderful book about the environment and what people do to the environment. It's almost a conservation book, which you don't expect from a man of that time.
I know he doesn't do characters incredibly well. The whole evisceration by Mark Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses"... Pretty much everything Twain says in there is true, but at the same time I can't think of a modern writer that can write nature stuff as well as Fenimore Cooper did. He was incredible. And his daughter was a really good nature writer, too. I didn't find that out until I started doing my research.
Dave: I know this question is completely unfair, but people will be bugging you at readings so I'm just going to ask: Fenimore Cooper wrote five Leatherstocking Tales; how many books will you write about Templeton?
Groff: Probably one.
Dave: But you're young. You've got another forty years, at least.
Groff: Richard Ford comes to mind as someone modern who is able to do it really well, although his take on Cooperstown in Independence Day is nothing like my Cooperstown. And he has some facts wrong there, too. But, anyway, I don't think so.
I've written short stories about Cooperstown, and I will continue to write short stories because they're more manageable. But I don't like to do something that feels easy, and it feels almost easy to come back to a pre-made town.
Dave: I've read a couple novels recently in which ghosts appear and hardly raise an eyebrow. The Averell Cottage ghost is like that: No big deal, just a ghost.
What gives? You put a ghost into a story and nothing comes of it?
Groff: Ha! I don't know. It's a friendly ghost. My generation was raised on Casper. Have you ever seen a ghost?
Dave: I have not.
Groff: Have you ever thought that you might have?
Dave: I don't think so.
Groff: Well, when I was growing up, I had terrifically bad eyesight — I still do — and an overactive imagination. I read a great deal, and I was easily scared by anything. I'd wake up in the middle of the night in Averell Cottage, which is based on the house where I grew up. I'd look out and I'd see a ghost.
I learned not to talk about it because people definitely thought I was insane.
Maybe I was just nearsighted and overactive in my imagination, but since nobody else took it seriously I didn't either. It was simply a fact of my existence that there would be a ghost hanging over my bed at the end of the night.
Dave: For the record, I don't disapprove of your use of the ghost. It does suit the history that comes alive throughout the story.
Groff: There are some really good writers out there who use ghosts in a blasé way. I'm thinking of Gina Ochsner.
Dave: An Oregonian.
Groff: She's really good. She writes a lot of ghost stories. They're all very beautiful, real literature, bigger than just the ghost itself.
There's only so much horror you can take before it stops being interesting. Maybe having a ghost that's not scary is a surprise.
Dave: Has the book been optioned for a movie yet?
Groff: No, but I know there's been a lot of interest. What they do until they actually come to me with an offer, I have no idea.
Dave: As you were writing, did you have anyone in mind for Willie and Vi?
Groff: I tried very hard not to think of actual people. I had pictures in front of me, but not of actresses; the old photos of people that appear in the book, or others like them. But I have been thinking about this. I don't know if Maggie Gyllenhaal would be good for Willie, but I think she'd be cute. Ellen Page just did Juno, but she probably wouldn't do another movie about a girl who thinks she's pregnant. And for Vi, I love Frances McDormand. I think she's great, and she'd make a really good Vi. She's just saucy enough.
Dave: So far, what's the best question you've been asked about the book?
Groff: Someone said, "It seems like there's a lot of attention paid to Genesis, or creation. How do you view the act of creation, and what is your intention in this book about creation?"
My answer was: In one of the drafts, that's what the story was about: the creation of a town and creation of a myth.
In one of the drafts, it was much more biblical. I had stolen a lot of stories from the Bible. You can still see remnants. For instance, the Sarah story, I think the one I was drawing on was Judith and Holofernes. The actual point where Kingfisher Tower is, that's Judith Point.
Some of those details in Monsters maybe get lost among all the other things going on, and maybe they should get lost. You would need to dig for them. The Bible is an incredible piece of literature that doesn't get read as literature enough in this country.
Lauren Groff spoke from New York City on February 13, 2008.