Lauren Groff and Rachel Kushner Talk Prisons, Prairies, and Power
In Conversation with John Freeman at the Portland Book Festival
Listen to this conversation—which originally took place in November 2018, at The Archive Project by Literary Arts.
John Freeman: You both moved from one place to another at a significant stage in your life. Rachel, you moved from Oregon to California when you were about eleven. Lauren, you moved to Florida relatively recently, which you can see in this book [Florida]. I wonder if you could talk about how these landscapes affected your imagination as writers, and with that, how they changed, if at all, what you thought was dangerous.
Rachel Kushner: I am from Eugene, Oregon. Eugene was an incredibly sweet place to be a child. There was no anxiety about poverty there—I mean, there was some, but not the way there is now for marginalized, vulnerable people. No one had money in Eugene. It was a very free, open world in a small place that didn’t have many dangers, and then I moved to San Francisco at the age of ten. You insightfully gathered that the book had something to do with that shift, which was, in a way, a trauma, but an excitement in the way that everything dark that you symbolize in your life produces some kind of energy that can be used later for fiction.
I moved to a big city, I went to giant public schools, I brutally had my ass kicked on the first day of school and that was normal. There were levels of race humiliation there like nothing I had experienced in my life previously had prepared me to understand. I still don’t entirely understand. Part of it was just seeing physical violence between people which i think makes a huge impact on kids, at least it did for me. The first time I saw two boys fighting at school, the amount of blood that was left from this fight—I was in sixth grade, I was eleven years old—it shocked me, and some of writing a book [The Mars Room] that partially takes place in the memories of a woman from my neighborhood in San Francisco was an opportunity to try to reckon with some of that material.
JF: Lauren, you come from Cooperstown, which obviously influenced Monsters of Templeton and some of the stories in your first book. The stories in your new book are mostly set in Florida. What changed for you in your imagination and what you thought was dangerous upon discovering Florida personally?
Lauren Groff: I am from the Northeast and I believe that landscape has a profound effect upon character. I think the temperature and the geography that we look out and see on a daily basis do something to the soul. I grew up in this tiny little town of 1900 people famous for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Opera, having a huge number of tourists come, and yet my parents just let us be feral in a lot of ways. I swam all day in the lake that was just really beautiful and wonderful, so I had this idyllic childhood.
I moved to Florida twelve years ago because my husband took over a family business and as soon as that happens, you can never leave again. I felt trapped, and I am trapped, emotionally trapped, in this place that I didn’t want to be in, this place that’s incredibly humid, very hot, and full of disgusting bugs and alligators. My parents-in-law have lost three dogs because they live on a pond where there are alligators! So it’s this place where, at first, I was afraid to go outside. I was afraid of loving it, I was afraid of getting comfortable there because it didn’t correspond to who I thought it was. So for five years I resisted it and hated it and slowly, reluctantly, it grew on me like a mold. And now I feel Floridian, and it would take two hours to unpack what that means, but I do, I feel like a Floridian.
JF: You mention a word that comes up in both of your books, “feral.” In a number of your stories, the narrator often sees these wonderful feral children, usually boys, and she’s protective of them in that state. Similarly the narrators themselves are feeling a bit feral, but feeling they need to control that. And Rachel, since your book takes place in the criminal justice system, which is a system of control and punishment, there are a lot of directives about how to behave. At what stage is your book asking questions about who has the right to be in control and what gets controlled?
RK: Maybe I can partly answer by saying that I come at it from a slightly different angle, which is to say, I don’t so much think about who has the right to be in control as much as I try to ruminate on my own feelings about institutional logic, what it is and how foreign it feels, and what it does to people. There’s a great book by the famous American sociologist Erving Goffman called Asylums. He talks about the cultures in prisons, in hospitals and ships and psychiatric wards, as all having similar ways of stripping people of their identities and forcing them into modalities of behavior that are distinctly institutional by framework, and I’ve always chafed at that. I’ve spent a lot of time in prisons in California, so I’m familiar with the way that women and men are controlled, and in writing the book I was interested in links between the inside and outside of prisons, and the parts of that institutional logic that are particularly invisible to middle class people.
JF: One thing Rachel points out in the book, which is wonderfully discursive and full of anecdotes and facts you wouldn’t know unless you read the book, is that the prisoners who are working for 22 cents an hour in the shop class in the prison are building podiums for courtrooms.
RK: That’s absolutely true, and it was me who discovered that on my own tour. I went on a major tour of mostly California men’s prisons with criminology students who were planning on getting jobs in corrections, because the California Department of Corrections is always hiring, and I went as a “continuing education” student. And now I’ve gotten in big trouble for talking about this publicly and the California Department of Corrections has banned me from their prisons, so I don’t give a fuck if I talk about it anymore. But I was taken into many of the prison industry association’s projects—there are different prisons that are quite proud to show you what they’re doing—and one of the first places I went to was a textiles workshop, where they’re making prison uniforms for that prison and other prisons. The guy running it said they learn all this stuff about textiles and it trains them, so that when they’re released they can seek good jobs, but I noticed they weren’t sewing fabric, just gluing it. I asked what kinds of things they’re learning in here, and he said this isn’t about the actual skills you acquire, it’s about learning to work, which was an amazing moment for me.
Down the hall from there, they were making the safety goggles they wear for prison industries—that was one of the prison industries—and down the hall from that, they were making boots, for the prison industry. So it’s this bizarre tautology where the prison is making itself all the time, and it’s not about profit—prisons cost the state of California an enormous amount of money and they’re mostly public. I know people are freaked out about private prisons, but that’s a tiny percentage of people in prisons and money that flows to prisons. So it’s a public thing, and what the prison is spending money on with their infrastructure and these jobs is the incapacitation—it’s like a factory where the prisons make their own incapacitation.
JF: These two books demonstrate the capacity of fiction to deal with very broad and urgent problems—the prison-industrial complex, climate change to some degree—but through very intimate ways. Lauren, this is your fifth book, and like Fates and Furies, this touches gently on the pressure points of marriage, and as Rachel was speaking about something that creates its own incapacity, you can look at marriage as a vertically integrated control system. In Fates and Furies and in Arcadia and in other works of yours, you ruminate quite a bit on the ways that marriage is a contradictory, closed system that contains both positive and negative pressures, and I wonder if you could talk about how that operates in this new book.
LG: I would’ve tweaked your original question, which I thought was brilliant, to expand into the idea of domesticity and not just marriage; not just this feeling of being in control, but the feeling of what domesticity is and understanding what it means to be a domestic person while also longing to be the opposite. What does wildness mean? How can one live in a place like Florida, which is so liminal, where you pass from one state to another without understanding where you are? Often when I’m inside the house, so is nature. I’m a writer, so all I do is sit in the house all day long.
My feeling is these tensions are in all my stories and all my books, almost like the tension on the surface of a soap bubble. That’s how I see it, a constant pushing outward, an oppositional force against these constraints and these dictates that are imposed somewhat invisibly upon my characters, and within marriage or a longterm partnership, there are these invisible constraints that sort of push in—particularly on the women, let’s be honest—in the way that the outside world perceives the intimate relationship but also the way that it develops in this utopian community of two. So what I’m really interested in is this very fine, molecular level of opposition between the air and the internal force. And that’s what I feel like each of these stories tries to do, is to identify what that bubble is and how far you can push it before it pops.
The idea of landscape in this country is so tied up with the idea of dominion, because it was partly the idea of dominion that allowed us to claim lands which were not ours.
JF: I think what this book does, among other things, so beautifully, is capturing the strangeness of the natural world, because it just is. We can come at it with all sorts of projections, such as a marriage or a person or a friend, but it will just remain in its own state. I wonder if you could talk about writing about the natural world so that it doesn’t only symbolize, and then maybe you can read from one of the stories.
LG: I think my feeling for the natural world comes from my daily runs. In Gainesville, where I live, which is in the middle of a swamp, there’s this giant prairie full of wild bison and the descendants of the conquistadores’ horses. Coral snakes and all sorts of poisonous, dangerous things. I run there miles and miles every morning as the sun’s coming up and it does multiple things for me. One, it reminds me to get out of my head and to actually live in the world. And two, it reminds me that we are all animals even if we believe we’re somehow distinct or separate or above other animals.
In understanding this and seeing over the past twelve years, in a really granular way, you can see the way climate change is affecting the prairie, and it breaks your mother-loving heart on a day-to-day basis. You can feel like an animal, feel like a human, understand the way we live within this larger web than we are able to comprehend, and see the way we are affecting that web. We pretend we don’t have to be the voices of the voiceless, but it’s our job as humans to stand up for nature, I believe. It’s filled my work for the past twelve years with a sense of the injustice and profound immorality in the stance that humanity is somehow above nature.
JF: That idea, I think, is defined as dominion, which comes in some part from the Bible. The idea of landscape in this country is so tied up with the idea of dominion, because it was partly the idea of dominion that allowed us to claim lands which were not ours. In one of your stories, Lauren, one of the characters is imagining what an early Quaker explorer would’ve made of Florida, and she thinks, “a damp, dense tangle, an Eden of dangerous things.” Similarly, in The Mars Room, one of the inmates who knows Romy, the main character, is from Apple Valley, and this inmate says, “it feels so good to have a place to put your anger, to punish someone like you’ve been hurt.” Since women are at the heart of both of your books, I wonder if you could talk about the ways that women are the site of and resist punishment.
RK: Oh gosh, what do I say about that? I’m distracted by Apple Valley, which is a real place in San Bernardino Country. I was just there recently, because a friend of mine, a transgender man who is serving a life sentence in a women’s prison in California, wanted me to go and find his mother, who lives off the grid in Apple Valley. They hadn’t spoken in twenty years. He was convicted for a gang killing, never snitched on the other people involved, was not supported at all by the gang when he went to prison, which tells you about a gender dynamic with people who come from the so-called problematic layer of society from which the prison populations are pulled. If men go to prison and have done honorably by their gang, they are supported while inside: people put money on their books, help them out in various ways. Women get no support at all from the gang, and later on get no support from their families.
In California when they were in their prison-building frenzy between 1980 and 2012, when a new prison was sited in a small town in the Central Valley, which is where they’re all pretty much sited, where we grow food for the country—if a men’s prison was going to be built, the local community, primarily Republicans live in Central Valley, people would come out and protest, and a lot of what they were concerned about was this unsavory population that would come to visit their family on the weekends. And when women’s prisons were built in small towns in Central Valley, no one was concerned about who was coming, because nobody was coming.
To come back around to my friend in prison, this person has no support on the outside, and I thought, I’ll go to visit the mother because I’m the only person willing to do it, and I thought I knew what I wanted to say to this person’s mother about—her daughter, as I put it (I wasn’t going to hit her with a lot of different kinds of news at one time; I like to meet people where they’re at)—I wanted to let her know that her daughter is someone I met through human rights work that I do, and is someone I admired and learned from, and I thought about this for almost a year as I mentally prepared to go speak to this woman. But what I hadn’t understood was what the impact would be on this woman, who had learned to live without a daughter who was serving a life sentence, and frankly had decided to forget about her and had formed a life without her, and I was suddenly confronted with her trauma in the situation and what prison does to families. I hadn’t considered her feelings, so it was a deeply humbling moment for me.
Archetypes are not static; they’re not things that only repeat what we know. I think they can be used to expand the limits of what we’ve believed in the past.
JF: I think you just demonstrated the capacity for your storytelling to hold immense amounts of complexity in it, rather than reduce it. There’s a line in your book that goes something like, “people were a lot stupider than you thought, but that wasn’t bad because they were also a lot less demonic.” I think one of the things that this book does, and Lauren’s as well, is it rejects a reduction of a very complex field to a series of signs, and one of the ways, Lauren, that you’ve done it throughout your work, is through elements of mythology in the symbology you use. I wonder if you can talk about myth as a way to hold complexity, because it clearly is something you’ve read a lot of and understand very well, and one of the joys of reading your book is seeing those old myths come back to life in new forms.
LG: I think that our job as literary writers is not to reduce things, to make them more complex: by the end of a book you should see a fragmentation of what you believed. It’s our job to ask more questions than we thought possible at the beginning of the book. I’m a huge fan of Bruno Bettelheim and Marina Warner and people who have worked deeply in this realm, and I love how mythology changes depending on the person or group or time in which it’s being rewritten, and I find that really moving and beautiful. The baba-yaga, for instance, of 2018 is not the baba-yaga of 1950 or 1850 Russia: she’s changed, she’s become something different, and in this way I think we can be really subversive when it comes to archetypes. Because archetypes are not static; they’re not things that only repeat what we know. I think they can be used to expand the limits of what we’ve believed in the past.
I’ve used mythology as almost a variation on themes, in a musical way—I wish I were more musical than I am, but my music comes through writing—in order to take an idea and to play with it throughout all my books. It’s a theme I come back to. I don’t think of my books as discrete objects; I think of them as speaking to each other, and hopefully destroying what I’ve done before. That’s what I really want to do with each successive book—I want to obliterate what I’ve done before.
JF: There will be no book burning after this. Rachel, as Lauren was speaking, I was thinking, one of the archetypes that emerges in your book is the family. Romy grows up with a not-neglectful but not-present mother, and a missing father, and goes to prison and sort of makes a family out of the people there. I wonder if you could talk a bit about the characters she meets and the ways they play into—or don’t play into—the nuclear family.
RK: The character Romy, when she talks about her background as I mentioned before, is from my neighborhood in San Francisco. I would not have been able to inhabit her voice, especially in the first person, and have the depth and range of understanding that I needed, if I hadn’t made her a girl I could know intimately. In a certain sense, she is an homage to a lot of the women I grew up with whose destinies were quite different from my own, the people I grew up with. I didn’t really want to burden her with an absent father and neglectful mother in order to explain what happens to her, and I think that’s important to me because the role of psychology and character in fiction is not necessarily my primary interest at all. It was more that she spoke in a tone, and with a refusal to sentimentalize, and then some of her background rolled out and she was from a type of background that was very familiar to me from the other kids I grew up with. No one really had a stable background and two parents.
When I started doing human rights work, separate from my novel, in the main women’s prison in California—which is known as Chowchilla, the largest in the world, there are almost 4000 women there—one of the things that struck me about the place, without wanting to sound sentimental myself, was the types of community that were built. It’s also a brutal and cruel place. Women, instead of shanking each other in the hallway, like men do, can really terrorize one another psychologically, but there are also examples of support among people.
The work I did was with an organization called Justice Now, which teaches human rights law to women in prison, and it was a kind of model of empathy among women in prison, and the more I got to know those people and learned about their lives in prison, something really struck me, which is the collective nature of intelligence in prison and the methods women built to look out for one another. They always seemed to have organically accreted from the population, which is always shifting—there are a lot of lifers in prison, but a lot of people are coming and going. It was something about a collective resistance to the authority of the prison and its protean nature because the population is shifting and the rules are always changing—the guards are not stupid; the California system is always trying to outsmart the methods that people develop for getting around the rules and the laws, and it was this collective intelligence which really struck me.
This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Lauren Groff is the New York Times bestselling author of three novels, The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia, and Fates and Furies, and the celebrated short story collection Delicate Edible Birds. She has won the PEN/O. Henry Award, and has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, along with several Best American Short Stories anthologies, and she was named one of Granta‘s 2017 Best Young American Novelists. She lives in Gainesville, Florida, with her husband and sons.
Rachel Kushner is the bestselling author of The Flamethrowers, a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Top Ten Book of 2013. Her first novel, Telex from Cuba was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent novel is The Mars Room. She lives in Los Angeles.
John Freeman is an American writer and literary critic. A graduate of Swarthmore College, Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual, and author of two books of nonfiction, The Tyranny of E-mail and How to Read a Novelist, and the book of poetry, Maps. He has also edited two anthologies of writing on inequality, Tales of Two Cities and Tales of Two Americas. The former editor of Granta, he lives in New York, where he teaches at The New School and is writer-in-residence at New York University. The executive editor at LitHub, he has published poems in Zyzzyva, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Nation. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages.