Between the lines of jazz music in Jerusalem

The 40-year-old American novelist is among the A-lister guests due to fly in soon for the International Writers Festival taking place for the seventh time at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, May 12-16.

May 8, 2019 21:00
Between the lines of jazz music in Jerusalem

AMERICAN WRITER Lauren Groff will team up with local stellar scribe Zeruya Shalev to look into marital secrets.. (photo credit: MEGAN BROWN)

In jazz they talk about an artist having “chops,” indicating they have the skill, energy and physical ability to produce exhilarating renditions. The same could be said for writers, particularly in Lauren Groff’s case.

The 40-year-old American novelist is among the A-lister guests due to fly in soon for the International Writers Festival taking place for the seventh time at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, May 12-16.

The Cooperstown, New York-born-and-bred writer has put in her fair share of track pounding in her time, and her sister is Olympic triathlete Sarah True. Groff says that putting her corporeal being through its paces can help air out her cerebral functions, and release some new avenues of creative thought and writing. “It is so beautiful, the moment when you work your body so hard that you’re body almost leaves you, in some ways, and then you are almost pure brain. I love that.”

Writers have different ways of approaching their work. Some wait for the muse to put in an appearance, while others follow a far more stringent regiment, putting in their 8-10 hours a day in front of their computer screen, inspirational sources at the ready or no. Considering her athletic backdrop one might, possibly, liken the protracted process of churning out a full-length novel to getting through a long-distance run. “I’ve done four marathons at this point and I can tell you a marathon is much easier than writing a book,” Groff laughs. “With marathon training you run as much as you need to run, but you’re never done with a novel.”

The mother of two feels her main line of work is more akin to a long-term domestic arrangement. “A novel is more like, in some ways, a marriage. You get up with it every day. It’s your constant companion. It’s in your space. You carry it around with you, and feed it energy. You have to constantly pay attention to a novel.”

Groff has been paying close attention to her expanding body of work. Over the past 11 years she has released three novels and a couple of collections of short stories, the latest of which, Florida, came out last year. It makes for a fascinating read as the writer draws a wide range of personal vignettes, snapshots of life in Florida, mostly of the pastoral ilk. You gain a sense of intimacy with the people she portrays, a sort of small-town microcosm that, at once, reflects universal themes and emotions but also homes in on very private, unique feelings and sensibilities.

She obviously spends generous amounts of time pondering the people she creates. That is basic prerequisite of the job but, then again, there must be a danger of becoming entangled in the lives of her subjects. “There are certain characters written that I still actually worry about,” Groff admits. “There is a character named Bit, in my second published novel called Arcadia. He wasn’t made for the world as it is, so I do end up worrying about him.”

For Groff, it is very much a matter of snuggling up close to the figures she conjures up. “You do invest a great deal of emotional weight in certain characters. Other characters you have to get rid of,” she chuckles, “but I do worry about some of them.”

How much of Groff and her own timeline is in those characters, and the lives she sketches for her readers? She says that’s part and parcel of her occupation. “The writers I admire the most are those who, as they age, go deeper into their work and deeper into their wisdom. I would hope that is happening for me also. I think that each book that I write is more complicated, and more, I hope, wise. But it’s hard to see your own work. Our faces are pressed to the rug. We can’t see the overall pattern, we can only see the threads.”

While Groff feeds off her own experience in much of work there are clearly situations and milieus which she could not possibly have encountered firsthand. Arcadia, which was released in March 2012, tells the story of the first child born in a fictional 1960s commune in upstate New York. As a child of the ’80s, Groff must have had to do some research and get her facts and figures right in order to get a handle on the ’60s zeitgeist and convey that convincingly. They do say that if you remember the ’60s, and all the sex, drugs and rock and roll thing, you probably weren’t there. Then again, evidently Groff didn’t need to be there to provide her readers with the Western-world vibe of the time.

“There are certain elements of the human experience that, even if they are not universal, they’re so common that you just draw on those ideas,” she posits. “I know what it was like to be a child and confused in the larger political world, and to try to understand the way the adults around me are functioning as small cogs in a larger system. I was able to transfer that to my characters.”

Besides mining her own personal experiential seam, Groff tends to put in the spadework, including getting as close as she possibly can to the subject matter in hand. “You have to draw on everything that you know, but I also do a great deal of research when I write. It usually takes me about a year of research before I write any large-scale project.”

That’s not just sitting in her comfy office surfing the Internet. “For Arcadia I went and I lived in a couple of communal places, some from the past and some currently ongoing. I read hundreds of books. I interviewed people who’d lived in 1960s utopianesque communes.”

The writing gestation process, for Groff and possibly for other artists who experience something similar in the run-up to putting their ideas into visual and/or sonic form, offers therapeutic benefits. Groff was at something of a watershed stage of her life at the time. “I was at the point of bringing children into the world, and I was probably really depressed when I was pregnant.” Although happy with the prospect of becoming a parent, she had her doubts about the place she was about to thrust them into. “I thought that the world was very dark, and very dreary and, why in the world would I choose this. Ultimately, we’re all destined to not be here [life] for very long, so one can think of bringing children into the world as a utopian affair. And I ask myself why would we do this if it is only going to lead to sadness.”

Apprehension gave way to reflection on a wider scale and eventually, a positive light began to shimmer through the gloom as the process of creation progressed. “Through the writing of Arcadia I came to understand that the pursuit itself was noble. You wake up every day and you tried to do your very best, and you try live according to your deepest moral codes. Things may go wrong, but it is a beautiful thing to try anyway. It’s a hopeful thing to try anyway.” It is indeed.

Groff will be bringing her positive thinking to Jerusalem, and will share some of that with her audiences at a couple of several English-language festival slots. The first is on Monday (7:30 p.m.) when she will get together with veteran Israeli author Zeruya Shalev and have a discussion with writer, literary critic and researcher Tamar Marin. Groff and Shalev will dig into their own intimate world and look at a range of issues that arise from their work, including what we really know about our spouses and what it is better not to know, and will talk about the idyll and tragedy behind the scenes of shared lives. The session goes by the name of Fates and Furies, which is also the title of a Groff novel which then-president Barack Obama proclaimed to be the best book he had read in 2015.

Groff, along with a stellar roster of other local and foreign writers, will also contribute to the festival’s traditional closer, on Thursday (8:30 p.m.). This year’s final item is called A Little Birdie Told Me, and the Tziporela Ensemble indie theater troupe and writer, editor and researcher Noa Manheim will host the writers for a satirical evening featuring original material, in which personal stories about legendary exes and never-ending love will be revealed.

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