Andersen: Part of this story concerns a months-long sexual relationship between Nic, the main character, and two married artists who hire her as a babysitter. In describing the relationship, which took place when Nic was 18, Nic takes care to say that she’s raising her daughter to fiercely rebuff sexual advances from older married men. But apart from that line, she’s not especially judgmental about the couple’s behavior. To the contrary, she seems to see the relationship as a positive formative experience, one that awakened her, aesthetically, and even served as a refuge from family trauma. Is it more difficult to capture the complexity of those kinds of relationships in the post-#MeToo era?
Groff: I’m not sure. These kinds of relationships have always been complex. I wasn’t intending to write about general trends in the way we see sexuality, only about this character’s specific sexual past. I was interested in the way that foundational experiences can be inexplicable in their intensity and moral ambivalences, and the way that external judgment often doesn’t touch the central, quickened, truly strange essence of sex. But I also am ambivalent about memory and the way that we change events over time, and I wanted to live within Nic’s possible inconsistencies of memory.
Andersen: Speaking of formative experiences, Nic refers to her difficult childhood several times in the story, describing her family life as “hard,” and wishing for a future with “no sudden danger, no violence, no sharpness.” But we never hear what exactly was happening at home, except when Birdie alludes to Nic’s father hurting her. Can you talk about why you weren’t more explicit about that?
Groff: I tend to pare to the essentials during the editing process. I write twice, sometimes many times, the number of pages I need, and then condense the story to as economical a length as I can make it. This (sometimes) helps to create the old Hemingway iceberg. (Hemingway: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”) I know things the reader doesn’t, but the reader can still sense them in the text, which leads to an intimation of a fuller world beyond the story.
Andersen: There’s a moment late in the story when Nic arrives at a light-filled lake house, full of elegant decorative objects, and the smell of fresh cinnamon pancakes. Up to that point, the story is mostly set in a hospital room and a chain hotel, drab settings that don’t give a writer of your stylistic lushness much to play with. Can you talk about how you work to make those mundane spaces feel fresh to readers? And are we right to sense a touch of writerly relief from you—a relief shared by Nic—when your characters finally enter a space that allows you to really open up your descriptive throttle?