Novelist's debut novel is a monster

by Connie Ogle

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

5 November 2008


Novelist Lauren Groff doesn’t want you to think she’s nuts, but she thinks she might have seen a monster in Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, N.Y.

“It was part of the stories we’d tell ourselves as little kids to keep ourselves up all night in fear,” she recalls. “The lake is deep and dark, and there are these pockets of cold water. ... You can believe anything is possible in it. It’s really scary and exhilarating.”

How fitting then that the legendary creature comes to life - or more accurately, death. “The day I returned to Templeton in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass,” begins Groff’s funny, magnetic novel “The Monsters of Templeton” (Voice, $14.95 in paper).

The title and a complimentary blurb from Stephen King (“everything a reader might have expected from this gifted writer, and more”) may have misled some readers, because the book is not exactly a horror story, although there is that dead monster and a shy ghost. Groff, who graduated from Amherst College and has an master of fine arts degree from the University of Wisconsin, prefers to focus on more metaphorical hauntings, honing in on a small town and one of its founding families. The story is narrated by troubled, possibly pregnant young Willie Upton, who has returned home to Templeton, N.Y., licking her wounds after a love affair goes wrong. She ends up delving into the past of her family and her town and uncovering surprising secrets.

Templeton stands in for Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, birthplace of baseball and home to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Groff now lives in Gainesville, Fla., a place best known for another sport, with her husband and dog (Cooper, of course). In their old house, if you look hard, you can find some of the antique photos sprinkled throughout the novel. Groff calls the university town “a sweet place to live, quiet and calm,” except, of course, on certain fall Saturdays.

“We have this electric car, and my husband drives it to the games,” she says. “It’s hilarious to see these young, intoxicated people running after the electric car going, ‘That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!’”

Q: The book has so many elements - genealogies, letters, diaries, photographs. Was it difficult to maintain the narrative with all the bells and whistles?

A: Absolutely! The final draft is a mix of all the other drafts. The way I write is I write straight through and then say, “Wow, that really didn’t work.” This is the fourth draft, the draft born of despair, because by then I was finishing my M.F.A., and here’s my future stretching before me, and I’m thinking, “I have a fellowship next year, and then it’s out into the cold, cruel world, and then I won’t be able to write, I’ll have to work.” I thought, “Well, nobody’s going to read it so why don’t I throw in everything I can possibly throw in?” I was amusing myself.

I love the form of the novella; it’s the most elegant form out there. One version was six novellas, with nothing linking them. The next one was very linear, in the voice of town founder Marmaduke Temple, but he dies in the first chapter, so it was very “Lovely Bones-y” in a bad way. ... Then Willie was born, and soon I had the first line. I’d been reading “Moby Dick,” and I thought, “Hey, there’s a monster in MY lake.”

Q: So there WAS a monster!

A: It’s a local legend. In the old newspapers there are these great snippets from 1808 about a monster in the lake that made the sound of a hollow log beaten repeatedly. It’s a real campfire story.

Q: What was it like growing up in Cooperstown?

A: It was fascinating. It’s a tiny, tiny town, with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. We lived a block and half from the Baseball Hall of Fame, so we saw all the tourists. There is a major split between the town and the museum, but it was wonderful. Whenever there was a Phillies player inducted we had people sneakily camping out on our front yard. I think people have enormous affection for Cooperstown. It’s almost outsized in terms of its size in the world. So many Americans love it, but they know it as visitors. I wanted to wrap up MY version of the town - a very subjective version - in covers and give it to people.

Q: Why did you decide to put photos of Willie’s ancestors in the book?

A: I actually have a hard time inhabiting a character until I have an image of the character. So I would go through antique stores and find little images and put them up on my bulletin board so I could try to inhabit that person. In the end, as I was shopping the book around, I thought, “Why not?” I had to go on eBay. The picture of Marmaduke in the book is this 4-foot-tall Dutch oil painting from the 18th century, and I bought it online for some silly amount. I had no place to put it in my house, it was so dark and dour. So I put it in my dining room. It’s still there. All my guests come in, and the ones who don’t know us well, they’re like, “Oh. ...”

Q: What does the monster in the book represent to you?

A: For me, it’s the beating heart of the town, this deep, affectionate, loving creature that loves the town and its inhabitants. It’s so many things. It’s the secrets that are inherent in the town. Only people who are disregarded tend to see it. ... If you search hard, you won’t find it. If you’re in a crisis mode, maybe you will find it. You know, readers are amazing; people say the monster represents everything. One woman at a reading said it represents God. I thought about that, and that’s fascinating. It was not intended, but that’s just as beautiful as anything I could have written.


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