Lauren Grodstein and Wendy McClure dole out the writing wisdom as they discuss starting new projects, Little House on the Prairie, and why good authors are born rather than made. Lauren Grodstein is the author of the New York Times Editor’s Pick A Friend of the Family. Wendy McClure recently published the critically acclaimed memoir The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie.
WM: You’ve had three books published the last few years, so no doubt you’ve experienced that wobbly What’s The Next Book feeling. I’m going through that again right now—I have an idea, a few pages, a lot of talk, but it remains to be seen whether or not it’ll “take” (like a skin graft or organ transplant or something). How does that work for you? I mean, I know that The Wilder Life was at one time just a blobby concept and I had lots of outlandish notions about what it was going to be, but it’s hard to remember all that tentative stuff once the vestiges are edited out. Have you had a different process for starting each of your books, or have you come to recognize the steps?
LG: Okay, so to answer your strikingly relevant question, I’ve just come down with a serious case of the Next Book Terrors, and while I’m doing my best to push the fear out of my mind and press forward, I’m actually very freaked out that all my ideas are bad ones and this new book will fall apart. The advice I would give my students in this situation is that a draft is only that, a draft – it’s supposed to be imperfect and full of misdirections and strange ideas and narrative cul-de-sacs that will eventually be edited out. The problem is, as you’ve mentioned, it’s so hard to remember that your earlier drafts of earlier novels were once just as imperfect as your current draft is, since a) it’s been so long since you wrote them and b) they’re all cleaned up now and stylish in their beautiful covers. But anyway, I’m doing my best to take the advice I give so casually to my students. Right now I’m just pressing forward with the draft of my next novel, because what else is there to do? And eventually it will be something readable and maybe even good – won’t it? Won’t it? What about you? How do you get started on your next project? And how do you push away The Fear?
WM: New projects are weird. Just like you tell your students, I try to tell myself that nothing in my fledgling work is too important yet—it can all change, it can all be cut. And yet at the same time, everything is important at this stage. My proto-manuscript sometimes contains of dozens of separate documents, each one containing a tiny fragment from a moment I Sat Down To Work On The New Thing. (If you “start” a project enough times, you stop worrying about false starts.) All these little documents are like seedlings and I know not all of them are going to make it, but I nurture them all for a while, putting them in folders, afraid to throw them out. I still have a file full of the stunted paragraphs that didn’t grow and make it into The Wilder Life. It’s hard having to just forge ahead knowing at some future point some of my ideas will be abandoned, will in fact seem very stupid in retrospect. But I’m trying to get around this by insisting to myself that nothing I’m doing right now can possibly be more ridiculous than the resolution to WATCH EVERY SINGLE EPISODE OF LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. No, really: I thought that would be part of my last book, and I took the notion very seriously. For about a month. But of course my better judgment prevailed, and knowing that something in me had the sense to give up on taking diligent notes on Season 4 (that’s when Melissa Sue Anderson’s character goes blind!) helps ward off The Fear. Somehow I’ll find my way. Of course, it’s not just fear and uncertainty and mind tricks. Starting something new can be fun, right?
LG: Now you’re talking. That Mary-goes-blind episode was television at the top of its hysterical form. In fact, although at this point my memory basically consists of a toddler screaming the Dora the Explorer theme song on a loop, one image that survived parenthood’s shriveling effect is of beautiful Melissa Sue Anderson in the dark (maybe an attic?) looking all blond and gorgeous and spacy-eyed screaming, “Pa? Pa!!!” Even now, I shiver. I was obsessed with the Little House books as a kid, especially the food passages – the hog killings, the butter churnings, the county fairs. (I also liked it whenever Ma made a dress for Laura out of “lawn,” which I imagined as maybe something Lady Gaga-esque, Laura covered in blades of grass.) But the food passages were really the best; I read them again and again and imagined each feast with the careful attention of the proto- foodie. Now, as an adult, I read cookbooks like they’re novels and my favorite non- reading activity is cooking (if I may brag for a moment, I make pretty amazing toffee, do very nice things with leafy greens, and if I’m not in one of my inconsistent vegetarian periods my leg of lamb is superlative). It’s interesting to me, though, how much I’m the same person I was at 8: back then my favorite things were reading, writing, and eating, and now, if you throw in sleeping, my favorite things remain precisely the same. I think novelists are born, not made: we were the kids making up outrageous stories to our teachers in the third grade, not to get out of trouble, but just because outrageous stories made life more interesting. We were the ones mumbling to ourselves, hiding in corners with books, eschewing ballet class for the pleasures of Little House. I’m slightly more socially bearable than I was when I was a kid, but deep down, I know I’m still that dark-haired, happy little weirdo. And that knowledge makes me smile.
WM: Let’s hear it for weirdos, all right. And those Little House books made me so detail- oriented that I wanted our kitchen cabinets to be filled only with glass jars of preserves and canned beans and tomatoes. Somehow, all our boxes of Lipton Cup-of-Soup Mix and Cap’n Crunch were inauthentic to me—a sentiment that seems almost Michael Pollanesque (though I still ate the cereal). I wasn’t exactly trying to pretend that my family lived in a Dakota shanty, it’s more that I was trying to realign my reality—I wanted to see my own world with the kind of charmed sight that Laura Ingalls seemed to have when she looked at her world. Which brings to mind your comment about novelists being born, not made. I’ve always thought that became the kind of writer I am sort of by accident—after all, who ever dreams of becoming a “nonfiction writer?” (I know that “memoirist” is a lovelier term, but for me the term calls to mind wizened ladies-of-letters writing about their wealthy and conflicted childhoods in colonial Africa.) And yet, as long as I can remember, I’ve always tried to make life fit into a story: I’d mentally organize each day of summer vacation into a chapter, or try to recognize Important Plot Points when they happened, and so on. But of course, the effect I was after was something I found in fiction—a constructed life that nonetheless felt lived. And so I wonder: to what extent do you live in your own novels?
LG: I’m relieved to say that I don’t live in my novels particularly. I mean, I steal certain details from my life and insert them into my novels (usually geographic details, which is why I’m forever writing about New Jersey instead of Hawaii or Rome) but I don’t use real-life events in my books, or at least not real-life events that have happened to me. And this is because – and prepare yourself for a high-falutin’ Writerly Theory here, for which I apologize in advance – I believe happy lives are made up of short stories, not novels. Short stories are tiny moments that change people, that reverberate, that reveal, but that usually don’t totally upset the ship. We live short stories every day. Novels, on the other hand, are Big Huge Events that Permanently Rewrite Everything. I prefer a life filled with tiny moments. Big Huge Moments freak me out. I don’t know how I got this lucky, but my life is a really happy one. My novels aren’t necessarily happy. But they have to be lived by other people. And yet you write what you live! You’re telling the truth, as opposed to me, who makes crap up for a living. I have so many questions about that process (How do you decide what is true about your own past? Do you worry about offending people you write about? What made you get started?) but I think my biggest question is, Does writing memoir help you make sense of the life you’ve already lived? Do you learn as you write? And also, is now the right time to tell you I’m a really big fan?
WM: The feeling is mutual. I am reading A Friend of the Family and am having that awesome uncanny feeling that great fiction always gives me—that giddy “how is it that I am in the soul of a doctor named Pete who lives in New Jersey?” sensation that comes with becoming totally and wonderfully absorbed. It’s funny, because with The Wilder Life I learned so much about navigating back and forth between life on the page and off it. Yes, it’s strange having to decide what is true about my past, especially with this book, when I was writing about such recent experiences (often only weeks after the fact). But what I learned is that these decisions are almost never final—what you figure out at the time of writing is just one truth, and in time it coexists with all the other truths. It’s a lot like when I discovered that seeing the real Plum Creek in Minnesota didn’t displace the Plum Creek in my head. The former taught me a lot about the latter, of course, but “making sense” of something is an eternal process. I just bought a tiny original Garth Williams illustration from Little House in the Big Woods, and it shows Grandpa Ingalls carrying buckets of maple sap on a yoke—first walking towards a big tree, and then walking away. It’s a single scene with two little Grandpas, sort of like in a medieval painting, and I love that. I guess I could just write a journal or go off to an ashram to make sense of my life, but writing memoir lets me be in many different places at once, so that I can inhabit both the mystery and the resolution.