Lauren Fox, who graduated from the MFA program at the University of Minnesota in 1998, was kind enough to talk to me about her new book, Friends Like Us (Knopf, 2012). We talked about how Donkey Kong, how humor and pain get entangled, and the MFA program's influence on penmanship. Lauren Fox is also the author of Still Life with Husband (Knopf, 2007), and her writing has appeared in Seventeen, Marie Claire, and The New York Times. She lives in Milwaukee (in the oh, oh so grand state of Wisconsin) with her family.
1. Why use the Midwest as a setting? (Milwaukee! I'm thinking about Still Life with Husband.) What does that kind of setting bring to a story?
I grew up in Milwaukee, lived in Madison for a while and then spent almost a decade in Minneapolis. Except for a year in DC, I've lived my whole life in the Midwest, so it's what I know. It's home. I know its rhythms and quirks and at least some of its secrets. I'm not a person who can visit a place and then understand it well enough to set a novel there. I don't have that geographic intelligence that some people have. I get lost a lot. So it makes sense for me to set my novels in a place I know pretty well. I also found, after my last book came out, that people who don't live here have lots of preconceptions about the Midwest (There are suburbs in Milwaukee? And Jews? And irony? Yes, eleven, and yes!). I like undercutting those presumptions.
2. Can you talk a little bit about a story/novel begins to sprout for you? Do you start with a character, a sentence, an idea, an image, something else?
I start with a feeling, or sometimes a song. I am also a first-class brooder, and have been ruminating on certain incidents and grudges (you know who you are) for the last thirty years. Things are always percolating, and I'm always taking notes.
3. What is your writing life like? Are there rituals involved? Does it escape quick like spirits out of a cracked urn? Does it slouch like thick honey towards the opening?
My writing life is like a game of Donkey Kong (how dated is that?). I have two fabulous little girls who start talking to me at about 6:30 AM and don't stop until 9:00 PM. (Literally - they'll be talking one second, and asleep the next.) I'm always just trying to find a few minutes here and (oops, sorry, had to tend to a stubbed toe) there to write. (And my older one is in school, and I do have childcare. It's not like I'm writing novels while my kids are naked and foraging for food in the backyard. Not quite.)
4. I like something Lorrie Moore said about humor, that it comes "from the surprise release of some buried tension." I feel like humor runs very close to sadness. I take my pathetic moods so seriously that I can't take them seriously at all. Can you just talk about the role of humor in your work? What purpose does it serve your characters? How does it help us understand/deal with our painful spots?
Novels are about crises, and a crisis without humor is... a therapy session? My characters are flawed people who make some really bad decisions. They tend to make awful messes out of their lives. I think humor pulls them briefly out of their own confusion and regret, at the same time that it underscores it. I definitely come from a great tradition of dark humor, both culturally and within my family. You can't come from a 2,000-year history of people trying to kill you and not find a little giggle here and there. Both of my parents are very funny people, and my brother's sense of humor is so dry that it sometimes takes me months to figure out whether he was joking about something. So I grew up really valuing that, and sort of intuitively looking for the humor in any given situation - almost as a way of describing it. I do tend to think that most things are either horrible or hilarious or both. The things that are both are the most interesting to me.
5. What inspired your book, Friends Like Us, that's about to be released? What is it like to move from writing one novel to another?
Moving from writing one novel to another was complicated by the fact that I was pregnant when I started writing my second novel. My main character was always bloated, tired and irritable. Not my best work. So Friends Like Us is actually my third novel (after I discarded the second one). And writing it was hard. I kept hearing phrases from the reviews of my first book in my head and feeling paralyzed, by both the praise and the criticism. I felt like I couldn't live up to the praise, and I took the criticisms as confirmation of my worst fears. Friends Like Us didn't really pick up speed until I forced myself to tune out all of that noise. After that, writing it felt like a victory. It was inspired by the intensity of that time period - for me and my friends it was our mid- to late-twenties - when some people are striding confidently toward their bright futures, and some of us are stagnating in jobs we hate and lives and relationships we don't have a handle on. (Note my clever switch to first person plural there.) The relationships between and among the three main characters in Friends Like Us are informed by the push and pull of love and friendship and impending adulthood.
5b. How did you carry around the story on a daily basis? (By this I mean, sometimes the poem I'm working on makes me more happy, less happy, etc. It seeps into my behavior.)
I carried the story around next to a grocery list, a permission slip for a field trip to the art museum, a pink mitten, a half-eaten bag of Cheetos, two overdue library books, and a song by Adele. I was very, very happy to add it to that collection.
6. What can a writer get out of an MFA program? How did your writing change during your time here?
I guess I can only tell you what I got out of the MFA program, which was time and support and confidence. I think that you can construct your life in some ways to resemble an MFA program -- you can work part-time, if you're willing to live an ascetic existence and are not encumbered by other financial obligations, and you can immerse yourself in the literary culture of your city or town, and you can be a part of writing group. And I've been doing these things, off and on and with varying success, ever since I graduated college. But an MFA program provides you with a scaffolding for all of that, a structure and a community of writers and a support system that is hard to replicate when you're on your own. How did my writing change during my time at the U? My o's got a little more oval, my l's slimmed down, my w's got a little pointier, and my q's became curlier.
7. What should writers be looking for when trying to find the "right" program?
I don't really know how to answer this one. It depends so much on the writer, what he or she is looking for, what s/he hopes to accomplish. For sure I would advocate finding a place that will offer you full funding. (Ed. I think even just this is advice potential applicants need to hear.) I don't suggest taking out a huge loan to enroll in an MFA program, because it's so hard and painful to balance creativity with money worries. It's something you probably have to look forward to, as a writer, for the rest of your life, so you might as well try to escape it for a few short, crucial years.
8. What made you decide to apply for MFA programs?
I wanted everything I've been talking about -- the time and freedom to write, the structure and support and community to allow me to do so.