Recently, the Pleiad was given the opportunity to sit down with Lauren Acampora, winner of the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) New Writers Award for her collection of interlinked short stories, The Wonder Garden. Acampora graduated from Brown University and earned her Masters of Fine Arts at Brooklyn College. Growing up in Connecticut, she now lives in New York with her husband, artist Thomas Doyle, and their daughter.
According to Acampora’s website, the short stories in The Wonder Garden “reveal at each turn the unseen battles we play out behind drawn blinds, the creeping truths from which we distract ourselves, and the massive dreams we haul quietly with us and hold close.”
Pleiad: What brought you to Albion?
Lauren Acampora: I was invited here because The Wonder Garden won the GLCA New Writers Award. There’s a non-fiction, poetry and fiction prize winner, and last year I won the fiction branch of the prize. With this prize, you can be invited to any number of the Great Lakes College Association members. Albion was one of the colleges that invited me to visit and give a reading, visit a class and basically talk about writing practice for students who are interested. This is the third college I’ve visited so far for this award, and it’s been really fun.
P: Who are some of your literary influences, both growing up and even currently?
LA: Growing up, let’s see… I don’t know where to begin. When I was a young reader, an author who made me want to write was Lois Duncan. She wrote a lot of books for adolescent girls. I think I read a biography or an autobiography of her and how she became a writer, and that’s when I realized it was something people could put their mind to doing and actually do. I think it always stayed with me that it was something that was possible. Her books were funny, and I could always relate to them. I read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. The Great Gatsby is still one of my favorite books. As controversial as it is, Lolita is still one of my favorite books. More recently, some authors who have influenced me, and who I really admire, are George Saunders, Donna Tartt and Michael Cunningham, who was my professor in the MFA program at Brooklyn College.
P: Take me through your writing process. How long does it normally take, and what are some of your go-to methods for brainstorming?
LA: I wish there were a real cut-and-dry answer for this, but really, it’s just all over the place. I think there are writers that exist, or at least they claim to exist, that have a real routine, disciplined practice that doesn’t change from year to year. I’m just not like that; it depends on what’s going on in my life and how I’m doing with the book. I’m very lucky I don’t have a full time job anymore, because when I did, all of my writing would have to happen after work or on the weekends. It was condensed into very short periods of time, which is a blessing and a curse. Now, I have more time, or at least it seems like I have more time, because I have the day when my daughter’s in school. But because I’m at home and I have a lot of stuff to do, I just try to be as disciplined as I can. It’s very hard to predict how long something’s going to take. Sometimes I think I have a good idea, but I realize halfway through that I need to start over or it’s just going the wrong way. It takes longer than I ever think it will.
P: Would you say the revision process is longer than the actual writing?
LA: It ends up being longer than I ever want it to be. It probably takes at least the same amount of time as it does to write the first draft. It depends on how many drafts you need to do after that. You may need to revisit it again and again, but hopefully you don’t have to rewrite the whole thing each time.
P: What kind of advice would you give to aspiring writers who are looking to get into writing?
LA: What I would suggest is to not be too hard on yourself in the beginning, and not expect brilliance and perfection when you’re first starting out. It takes a long time to write anything that’s any good. It takes a lot of experimentation and reading. I would also say to read all sorts of genres and whatever is interesting to you. Don’t worry about finishing a book if it’s not your thing, but just read to see what’s out there. My father was an art dealer, and he would take me around to visit art galleries and auction houses in order to, as he would say, “train my eye,” or to recognize quality. It’s hard to do that unless you’ve seen a lot of art, and I think the same is true for reading and writing. The more you read, the more you’re able to recognize quality and what’s fresh and exciting. So just read as much as you can and have fun with it; don’t be too hard on yourself or expect greatness right away.
P: Where did the idea come from for The Wonder Garden?
LA: It came from two places. I grew up in suburban Connecticut, and I moved to New York City for a while. When it was time to have a family, I moved back to the suburbs, and coming back was… interesting. The town where we live now is so much more interesting than the town I grew up in seemed to be. Now, the people who seem sort of conventional, and maybe even dull on the surface, you get to know them and you realize that they have a quirk or eccentricity that you wouldn’t expect. Everyone has something that’s interesting, or a history you wouldn’t have guessed, or an unusual family life, and that was so interesting to me. I thought that was really rich for fiction and a neat thing to explore. I wrote a novel sort of about a man who was an advertising executive and his wife who bought a house in the suburbs, and he has this mystical experience and decides he wants to become a healer. I got to the end of the first draft and there was something wrong with it. I didn’t want to rewrite it, and I happened to be reading a book of connected short stories, and I thought it would be something really fun to write. So I thought, “What if I take the seed of my novel and make it into a short story?” and that’s how I came up with the structure.
P: So it was kind of like four or five different story ideas all came into one?
LA: Yeah, exactly. I had a few stories that I had already written in my computer that took place in a suburban town, and I used those and connected them all. Once I made that decision, it all came alive for me, and I knew I was on the right track.
P: How did growing up affect your stories in The Wonder Garden?
LA: It gave me a picture in my mind of what the setting and the people would be like. I created this town called Old Cranbury, Connecticut, which is essentially a hybrid of where I grew up, where I live now and a few towns in between. There’s no real town that looks like the one I describe.
P: How did you string all of the stories together, or how are they all connected?
LA: It was pretty haphazard to be honest. I didn’t have any grand plan or map, so I had to invent some relationships between the characters. It was really fun. Each character has at least one connection in each of the stories. The last story in the collection has a number of links in it because it’s a party scene where everyone is at the same party.
P: What do you think we will see next from you?
LA: I have two novels that are on the docket now. There’s one I had written before The Wonder Garden that was sitting in the drawer for years, and I rewrote it. It needed to sit in the drawer for a few years for me to understand what I needed to do with it. That’s sitting there waiting, and my publisher is waiting to see the one I’m working on now, and then they’re going to decide which one will come out next. The one I’m writing now is not set in the suburbs, and the one I wrote before The Wonder Garden is. They’re going to determine whether they want to do a suburban one on the tail of The Wonder Garden. It’s coming along, and I think I’ve worked through what one of my writer friends calls the “German Woods.”