Oh. My. Gosh. I can’t stop thinking about Lauren Acampora’s debut. It’s dark, it’s brilliant. It’s utterly amazing. I wanted to finish reading because I loved the stories, the words, the depth and perception. Still, I wallowed in book limbo when I closed the cover for the final time; nothing compared to the carefully cultivated words that is THE WONDER GARDEN. Today, I am thrilled and honored to have Lauren on our blog couch.
L.L.: Lauren, thank you so much for popping by. I knew I was going to fall into the tangles of your prose after reading the first line. And then when the second line had something to do with a house, well, I was all over it. Can you tell us how the stories in THE WONDER GARDEN came to be? What was your inspiration?
Lauren Acampora: Hi Leslie, thanks for having me. I’m so glad you loved the book—and that you share my infatuation with houses! The stories in THE WONDER GARDEN sprang very much from looking at, and into, the houses in my area. I grew up in an upscale suburban town in Connecticut, which as a teenager I considered too polished and sheltered to be any fun, but after living for many years in the city (less polish, more fun), I moved to a New York suburb not far from my hometown. This time around, the suburbs are fascinating to me. From the very first weeks in our new home, I started thinking about the lives of the people inside the neighboring houses, how varied and unusual they were sure to be, despite the conventionality of the exteriors. I had the idea of writing stories about people in their homes—how they think of themselves and their neighbors—but thought I wouldn’t get to it until much later.
L.L.: Much of the theme has to do with darker secrets festering under the clean-cut façade of suburbia. Was your intention to sort of “unearth” those truths?
Lauren Acampora: I really didn’t set out to expose the festering secrets of suburbia, per se. I’m always driven by character first, and there’s rarely a character (or real person, for that matter) without a secret or problem or insecurity of some sort. To me, that’s where fictional interest lies. My only conscious intention was to reflect as accurately as possible how I thought these characters viewed themselves and others; to capture their most private, unfiltered thoughts, judgments and desires. But there is undoubtedly a stark contrast between the jagged interior lives of these characters and their manicured surroundings. Perhaps that’s why I’m so often drawn to suburban settings, rather than urban or rural. There’s a special clash of dark and light there that seems to create a kind of natural statement about the American dream. That’s a further dimension that holds interest for me, and hopefully for readers too.
L.L.: Homes, neighborhoods, suburbia…there’s something so very transparent—yet veiled—about our interior lives. What, in your opinion, is so alluring about the homes we inhabit?
Lauren Acampora: It seems to me that we, particularly as Americans, put so much stock in real estate; that we almost consider our homes to be extensions of ourselves. Just look at the proliferation of home-centered magazines and TV shows in this country! Perhaps it’s a byproduct of our pioneering history, this notion of journeying out to stake a piece of land, erect a structure, and fashion it in a way that is fully ours… In any case, the contemporary frenzy for home improvement and décor sends a strong message about our hunger for (or anxiety around) creative expression. So many of us aim to use our homes—inside and out—as a means of projecting an ideal self.
The other thing I find interesting about our homes is how they represent the push-and-pull between individuality and community. There’s a narrow boundary between individual freedom of the property owner and responsibility to the community. I find the conflicts that arise in this boundary to be rich mining for fiction. As a private property owner, one has the right to behave and express oneself freely—up to a point. After that point, there’s an expectation and a duty to function as part of a community; to conform. In a suburban neighborhood, there’s an unspoken expectation that neighbors will keep their property up to a certain standard, that they’ll respect the interdependency of property values. The conflicts that arise when someone flouts this communal responsibility say so much about the identities we desire. As a new homeowner in the suburbs, I was immediately and keenly aware of this responsibility, and of ever-churning feelings of pride and shame in my home. My identity felt so strangely wrapped up in what color we chose to paint the front porch!
And then there’s a whole other layer of internal conflict, I find, in people trying to reconcile their domestic preoccupations with awareness and concern for the outside world. In privileged communities, in particular, there can be a vacillation between seeking engagement with the outside world, and a competing desire to shut it out; to retreat into these comfortable, customized sanctuaries.
L.L.: I don’t want to give away too much of THE WONDER GARDEN, but the stories vary so greatly—from an under-the-table deal with a surgeon to a man who leaves his corporate job to become a healer—yet they are all interconnected. How did you dream up this structure? Do you have any personal experiences or connections with any of the stories?
Lauren Acampora: I’d actually been working on a novel about the man who leaves his corporate job to become a healer, told from the perspective of his anxious wife, but wasn’t happy with the final result. After a short period of despair, I resolved to salvage whatever I could of the characters, even if that meant turning a three-hundred page novel into a short story. At the time, I happened to be reading Elizabeth Strout’s wonderful OLIVE KITTERIDGE, and was impressed by how the linked-story format gave rise to something that was more than the sum of its parts. It occurred to me that I could use this model to expand my abridged healer story into something much more interesting. So I took some of the ancillary characters from the novel (friends and neighbors of the protagonist) and gave them their own stories—then roped in a few earlier stories with a similar setting. That’s when the sparks started to fly.
There’s not too much in the way of personal experiences or connections to the stories. We did have a home inspector visit our house before closing, of course, and my curiosity about that particular line of work spawned “Ground Fault.” My husband happened to have been at a corporate advertising job when we moved to the suburbs, and were expecting our first child, just like the couple in “The Umbrella Bird,” but he hasn’t become a New Age healer—at least not yet. And as for “Moon Roof,” I admit that I’ve sat at a stop sign far too long waiting to make a turn, berating myself for missed opportunities, and have sometimes wondered if I’d end up spending the night there.
L.L.: I understand you have a little one of your own now. Was she, or your new motherhood, inspiration to any of the stories?
Lauren Acampora: My daughter was, in a way, inspiration for all of the stories—in that I found it impossible to write a novel after she was born! Part of the reason I abandoned the original novel was that, with a newborn, I could barely keep the plot straight in my head. Short stories were much more manageable in the short bursts of writing time I could grab. I wrote all of “Ground Fault” with the baby sleeping on my lap, literally reaching over her body to type on my laptop. My back ached, but it was worth it to be able to hold up that story and know I could still finish something.
As for whether my experiences and thoughts about motherhood found their way into the stories themselves—absolutely. Motherhood is such a complicated role, and at least in this small part of the world, it can sometimes seem a package of draconian rules and expectations and judgments. Depending on the day, I can feel a thousand different ways about it all. And parenthood stirs up such a mix of love and guilt and frustration and pride. The story “Floortime” directly explores the conflict that arises between creative work and parenthood; in that case, heightened by the additional demands of a special-needs child. “Sentry” is about parental self-delusion, failure to acknowledge one’s own failings as a parent, and instead projecting failure and neglect onto other parents. And “Visa” channels the frustration of having to subsume one’s younger, freer identity to the mature role of parent. Camille is the embodiment of this frustration, a single mother plotting an escape from the suffocating expectations of the “mommy police.”
L.L.: Can you tell us a bit about your writing life? Have you always been a writer? How have you honed the craft? Rituals, routines? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Lauren Acampora: I was a big reader as a child, and always wanted to be a writer. It took a while to get there, though. I wrote poems as a teenager and through college, but didn’t really tackle fiction until I was in my mid-twenties. I was writing these sort of dreamy prose poems, and was rejected from a number of MFA programs, but finally attended the night program at Brooklyn College, which was wonderful for me. I’d been writing in isolation and desperately needed validation, and that’s exactly what I got. After that, I had the confidence to continue, and to push through the years of rejection from literary journals. My writing has matured as I’ve matured. I’ve always felt that you can only write as much and as deeply as you understand life. There’s a certain amount of wisdom that you can’t fake, but have to actually earn through living. That’s what I love about writing; it grows and deepens as you do. It’s a bottomless repository for understanding, and for trying to understand.
Now, what’s a “pantser”? Flying by the seat of the pants, I guess? I’m definitely not a pantser, then! I take preliminary notes that outline everything, beginning to end. Then I add as much detail to those notes as I can. That outline serves as my skeleton. Then I putter around, adding more details and dialogue, fleshing out the bones of the skeleton bit by bit, until full sentences begin to form. I work on the computer and keep the document single-spaced through the whole note-taking stage. Eventually, when I’ve turned all the jotted outline notes into full sentences—fleshed out the body, so to speak—I move stuff around, smooth out transitions, and so on. That’s how I sculpt my way to a rough draft. Then, and only then, do I double-space the document and begin to really edit. Finally, I’ll print it out and go through it again with a pen.
Then my husband reads it. Then my friend, who I met in my MFA program years ago and who’s a gifted reader and editor, gives it the business. If it gets past her, it goes to my agent.
I used to have all kinds of neurotic little writing rituals—a certain snack, a cup of tea (or whiskey), a table and chair in the absolute middle of the room—but parenthood has eliminated all of that. I’ve learned to write anywhere, under all kinds of circumstances: in someone’s basement with kids stomping and screaming above, in a cafe with the TV news blaring, in the driver’s seat of the car. My only preferences at this point are a window and a glass of water.
L.L.: What is obsessing you and why?
Lauren Acampora: You might say I’m obsessed with the obsessed. I’ve always been drawn to subcultures, and I really think there’s one for everything. If you can imagine it, there’s a subculture around it. I think it’s so interesting how people with obscure interests or eccentricities seek out kindred spirits and form tight-knit communities with some commonality at the core, whether it’s croquet, Legos, fishkeeping, or foot fetishization. And now with the internet, there are safe havens where people with even the most far-out, bizarre, or aberrant enthusiasms can find their place and feel normalized. And these communities, whatever their focus, tend to generate their own rules, generosities and trivialities—which are all so telling of human nature. For the story “The Virginals,” I really enjoyed learning about the vibrant Living History community, people brought together by their shared love of Colonial-era America. It’s an expansive, multi-layered community with its own hierarchies, industries, and social circles, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
L.L.: What are you currently working on?
Lauren Acampora: I’ve extensively revised a novel, also with a suburban setting, and will be getting that ready as a follow-up to The Wonder Garden. I’ve also been working on a new novel with a completely different setting, which explores some of the subcultural theme I just mentioned.But right now, today, I’m fleshing out the skeleton of a stand-alone short story, getting back into the writing routine after the publication frenzy. Feels good to be back at it.
L.L. Lauren, thank you so much for being with us today! We so enjoyed it!
Lauren: I’ve really enjoyed [it]…such thoughtful questions!
Lauren Acampora’s fiction has appeared in the Paris Review,Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, New England Review, and Antioch Review. Raised in Connecticut, she now lives in Westchester County, New York, with her husband, artist Thomas Doyle, and their daughter.
[Author and cover images courtesy of author/publicist. Green house image retrieved from http://www.bookdrum.com, black & white colonial from hookedonhouses.net, adirondak chairs from connecticut.mommypoppins.com, all retrieved on 6.22.15]