To mark the publication of “Birdie,” Lauren Groff’s third story in The Atlantic, she and Ross Andersen, an editor at The Atlantic, discussed, over email, what it’s like to write about sex after #MeToo, how fiction can be used to reexamine relationships, and how Groff writes such vivid scenes. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ross Andersen: “Birdie” begins with a group of women who knew one another in childhood reuniting at a hospital to visit the titular character, who has terminal cancer. But part of the ensuing narrative takes place decades in the past. Reading it, I wondered what first took shape in your imagination, the flashbacks or the scenes set in the present.
Lauren Groff: As with most of my stories, the separate pieces of the text had been floating around for a while before they met and melded. I’d had the backstory in mind for more than two decades, but the frontstory came to me when I discovered that people who were my college friends had been going on vacations together without me since graduation, which stung a little. I get it: I have been with my husband since college, and they found their people much later. I am pretty prickly at times and I need privacy, and there was an interpersonal issue with someone who had never really liked me. (It’s not a huge deal. There are far greater entries in my litany of pain.) But it got me thinking about coming back together with people you’ve left behind and facing these issues, and about being ostracized without ever realizing that was what was happening.
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?
Groff: The abstract answer is that all the things that characters in a short story notice need to hold an emotional charge for them: a character oppressed will observe with blinders; a character unloosed will feel her body coming to life. The concrete, writing-program answer is that often before I write a scene for the final time—I’m a nervous and constant rewriter—I take a minute, close my eyes, and build the world of the scene around me, including all the sensory details that probably won’t come into the story in the end (see: iceberg, above).
Andersen: This story has enough thematic material—on female friendships; the nature of foundational experiences, sexual and otherwise; the continuities and discontinuities between our childhood and adult selves—to fill a novel and then some. Do you always know, in advance, which stories you want to write short, and which you want to explore at novel length?
Groff: I tend to keep a story in my mind for a long time—many years, in some cases—until it has resolved itself into a form, at which time I know definitively that it’s a short story. Novels come out of a dark shadow on the heart, something that you need hundreds of pages to shine light into; stories, for me, start from a smaller explosion of light. To put it another way, a story often asks a handful of questions; a novel asks hundreds of questions. Novel questions breed while you sleep so that you wake up in the morning with even more questions.
For years, I have been dazzled by the way younger generations than mine so constantly and assiduously put pressure on the power structures into which we believed we were born. Many of the things I assumed about my own identity slid a little under this pressure; the character of Nic shows this slippage. The form of the story came to me at first tremendously slowly, then all at once, when I understood the story’s full length and shape.