To make this inscrutable thing understandable: An interview with Anya Groner


Anya Groner’s work has appeared in Guernica, The Rumpus, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and elsewhere. Her projects include a recently produced chapbook of poetry and a novel-in-progress called The Trouble With Girls. She has published everything from essays to poetry, but her work frequently deals with the contentious relationships between young people, especially sisters. She pulls these relationships apart in a way that only a real-life twin could and creates characters that seem both real and surprising.

I sat down with Groner recently on Loyola’s campus to ask her about her essay in The New York Times‘ “Modern Love” column, her novel-in-progress, and some of her other projects.

Room 220: I wanted to ask you why you often write about sisters. Is there something about that subject that draws you toward writing about it?

Anya Groner: Absolutely. I used to be really interested in writing about female friendship. I would write about female friends, then cousins. The female friendships I wrote about kept getting closer. I resisted for a while writing about twin sisters because I have a twin sister and it seemed so obvious. Eventually, I gave in. When other other people write twins, they use them symbolically instead of considering what describing what it’s actually like to be a twin. I’m working on a novel about twin sisters right now, and whenever I have a collection of short stories, I’m going to call it “Where Sisters Come From.”

Rm220: You’ve talked about sisters from a lot of different perspectives. Tell me about the novel you’re working on.

AG: It’s called The Trouble With Girls. The twin sisters are fourteen, and they get in a fight about money at the pool one summer day. One of them has Tourette’s, so they have this kind of unequal relationship where one of them resents looking out for the other. The one who has Tourette’s constantly feels like she’s a burden to her family. She has to try hard just to make it through the day, and nobody notices the effort she puts in. That night, they decide to spend their evening raising money. They try to scam younger people out of money by betting that they can prove that they’re telepathic. They run the scam a few times until this older man comes and says, “If I play your game, you have to play mine.” The stakes are high. If the girls lose this challenge, they have to hop a train with the man.

By the end of this chapter, one sister has hopped a train, and the other has stayed behind with the stranger, an eco-terrorist. The rest of the book is told from the girls’ separate points of view, but I try to have a lot of repeating imagery. Even though the girls don’t know what the other one’s doing, they’re having related experiences. One sister helps bomb a dam, and the other one experiences a flood at a campground. They’re not telepathic, but I wanted them to have these related moments even in their separateness.

Rm220: You’ve written some about environmental issues. Does that cross over into your fiction at all when you’re writing about eco-terrorists?

AG: I think about climate change a lot. Maybe, neurotically. It enters into my work because I feel a lot of despair about our environment, and I think about different ways people respond to it. For example, my eco-terrorist character is really well meaning, but he has a savior complex. I’m sympathetic with his environmentalism, but he’d probably be a really annoying person to know in real life.

Rm220: Is the character based on people you know?

AG: Maybe. People I’ve met along the way. There’s also a part of me that sometimes thinks, “Well, maybe that’s the way!” So maybe he’s more based on myself. But that’s all my characters. I take aspects of my personality and put them in a fun house mirror.

Rm220: What is your writing process usually like?

AG: It depends on what I’m writing. With essays, I often have specific assignments with precise deadlines. I know how much time I have to do research and to write. That’s exactly the opposite of how I write fiction. When I write fiction, a lot of times it’s very start and stop. I wish I had a regular schedule, but right now for instance, I’m working really hard on revising my novel, and I have to squeeze writing around my teaching schedule. I have index cards all over my office wall with notes to myself about projects. I probably look like a mad scientist.

Rm220: Besides making your writing schedule hectic, how has teaching creative writing impacted you as a writer?

AG: It’s made me feel more grounded in my beliefs about creative writing. It’s different to be the person who’s hearing instruction from a creative writing teacher than to be the one who’s saying it. I don’t want to teach anything I don’t believe in. It’s important to talk about making writing entertaining, which is obvious, but doesn’t gets much air time in academic settings. Any piece of writing is competing for a reader’s attention span. It has to be more interesting than someone’s cell phone or television. Entertainment is something I talk about with my students, and something I think about in my own writing. We have to work hard for our readers.

Rm220: I was curious if you ever feel a tension when writing nonfiction between your privacy and what you want to create?

AG: I wrote a piece about my marriage for “Modern Love” in The New York Times and that was definitely the most nervous I’ve been about something being published. It was the biggest venue I’ve ever written for, and readers commented a lot. That was a shift for me. People responded personally, both positively and negatively. In the essay, my husband, a doctor, is asked to help out during a medical emergency on a plane. I used the medical emergency as kind of a container to structure my thoughts and discuss the tension between committing a relationship and committing to a job. Some readers said their marriages had a similar dynamic, but not everyone related. One commenter wrote, “I give this marriage one year tops.” That surprised me. That kind of pessimism wasn’t in my essay, but this man projected it onto my writing. I’d not really experienced before.

Rm220: They must forget there’s a real person there.

AG: The act of writing feels personal and private and intimate, but on the Internet, depending on where you publish, writing can become part of a larger conversation.

Rm220: Your work frequently crosses modes, from essays to fiction to poetry. Do you think that these genres are in conversation with each other?

AG: This may be an effect of the MFA, but writers often identify with one genre or another genre. When I went into my MFA, I got an MFA in fiction. I didn’t really know what poetry was. I didn’t want to touch it. Then, the first class I had to teach was a poetry class. I was terrified, but I schooled myself, and I ended up really falling in love with poetry.

Genres inform one another. The idea of the poetic leap, for instance, has been helpful in my fiction. It’s nice to be able to move between genres. Some ideas are better expressed through essays or poems. Recently, it’s been a relief to write a story or a poem that’s got a finite beginning and ending. I’ve been working on my novel for six years, and it feels terrific to finish something.

Rm220: Yeah, it’s nice that you can choose instead of just being stuck with what you know.

AG: No one has to be stuck in genre. That’s a function of the way we’ve formalized and taught creative writing where people feel that they have to identify with one genre more than another. I’m actually expanding some more right now. I’m taking an online science-writing class. I get so excited about scientific research. I’m a little scattered in my approach, but science is so inaccessible to most people, and there’s so much amazing work being done. My twin sister is an ecologist, and year and a half ago, I spent a couple of weeks with her at a biology lab off the coast of Seattle. We shared a cabin for two weeks, and I followed her around while she was doing her research and then I wrote a long poem about it called “The Ecology of Falling Whales.”

The job of the science writer is to make scientific work, the kind of work my sister does, accessible, and to do that, writers need to traffic in metaphors. My job is to find the right metaphor to open the door to make this inscrutable thing understandable. And it’s a weird world. In the deep ocean, there are volcanoes, and organisms living in thermal vents! I don’t know how far I’ll get with science writing, but I’m super excited about it right now.

Rm220: You recently created a chapbook of your poetry with Sara White. What was the experience of producing that like?

AG: It was exciting to collaborate. Sara’s so gifted, and she’s got such vision.  It was wonderful to give her my poems and have them come back in a perfect, bound package. She’s got a degree in book arts, and she’s very professional. It’s a different way to publish, and I love it. I love having something so beautiful.