A conversation with Lauren Acampora
What made you want to write about the dark side of American suburbia?
It's funny—I don't know that I set out to write about the dark side of suburbia, or even suburbia, per se. In fact, the book started out as something very different. And yet the town of Old Cranbury did become critical to these stories, the nucleus shared by all the characters, almost a character itself. Isolation, anxiety and intolerance exist in every human setting, of course—urban, suburban or rural—but the straight answer to why these stories take place in suburbia is that it's what I know best, and what I see every day.
I grew up in a town much like Old Cranbury, and now live in a suburban town in Westchester County, New York. My hometown was, in a sense, a paradise—my mother called it "La La Land"—where financial inequality was nearly invisible, and easily forgotten. The town was such an extreme example of privileged living that it served as a kind of lightning rod for its residents. Some of the people I grew up with were rabidly proud of living there, while others disdained it and couldn't get away fast enough. This kind of town, like all human attempts at paradise, continues to fascinate me—and I am intrigued by how various types of people interact within it.
After a number of years in New York City, I returned to the suburbs with new eyes. I now live in a beautiful town (really the farthest reaches of the suburbs, semi-rural in places), and love every minute of it. I love driving past gorgeously renovated antique homes and horse farms and imagining the lives inside. I love imagining those people, who they are and who they want to be, and wondering whether those identities mesh—whether they are experiencing the happiness that such homes seem to advertise.
What has living in the suburbs revealed to you about the pressure of community expectations and class anxiety?
The suburbs are uniquely defined by tightly circumscribed property lines; private territories closely abut one another, with each house a jewel at the center. There is a dependence on neighbors to maintain a nice community image, to keep up property values. It is unsurprising that this kind of setting gives rise to insecurities and conflicts that may not exist elsewhere. I'm aware of this every time I feel self-conscious about my own untended yard, or proud of a new paint job. What a strong tendency it is, after all, to think of our homes as extensions of ourselves. Like our clothing, we use them to project our identities, and we look for clues in the homes of others that might help us understand—or at least pigeonhole—them. It's such a deep-seated human instinct, to judge others in order to elevate the self, and, in this country at least, it often finds its expression via real estate.
And, indeed, in the affluent suburbs, an almost palpable class anxiety can sometimes be found. All sorts of tension exists between the old guard and the new, separated by just a half-click or so in the socioeconomic hierarchy, in either direction. Not to mention the uneasy snobbery toward arrivistes, the rankling against those who are more demonstrative with their wealth, the affront of seeing extravagant new houses splayed upon tear-down lots where perfectly nice old Colonials used to stand. In writing The Wonder Garden, it was interesting to imagine how this kind of class tension might play out on an individual level.
John Cheever, Richard Yates and Tom Perrotta are known for their dark depictions of the American suburbs, have these writers influenced your work?
Yes, of course. Their characters and situations are so absolutely familiar to me—Cheever, in particular—that I'm sure they color my own outlook in ways I don't even recognize. I share their interest in the nature of disappointment, of facing mortality and touching the boundaries of our own limitations. How do we cope with these inevitable truths, especially in an environment like the suburbs, where there is pressure to appear kempt and content, and little in the way of urban distraction and delusion?
Another writer whose work has shaken and shaped mine is Flannery O'Connor, whose insight into the truths of her characters is at once piercing and embracing, and ultimately merciless. I feel as if there is a tiny Flannery O'Connor in my head, taking note of every ungenerous thought that flits by. I am a little bit afraid of her.
Why did you choose to write THE WONDER GARDEN as a linked short story collection? What did writing in this format enable you to do that you might not have been able to achieve otherwise?
Here's where I admit that the book actually began as a novel about Madeleine and David (the characters from "The Umbrella Bird"), tracking David's spiritual quest from Madeleine's bewildered point of view. The book didn't work; Madeleine's passive character wasn't a strong enough scaffold for a novel. Not wanting to discard everything, I thought perhaps I could at least salvage the crux of the story in a shorter form. After I did this, I realized that the root of that story's conflict was really in David's radical deviance from his conventional environment—and that there were several other minor characters in the novel who were secretly just as interesting, and deviant, in their own ways. It occurred to me that I could give them their own stories and see about weaving them together somehow.
Around this time, I happened to pick up three superb examples of interwoven short fiction: Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, and Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. All of these, I found, achieve a depth equal to or greater than the bulkiest of novels. By interweaving and overlapping characters and playing them off one another, these books create a multi-dimensional picture of the world in an economical way that deeply engages the reader. Inspired by these models, I gave freer rein to my project, inventing additional residents of Old Cranbury (some were characters that had been bouncing around in my head for years) and letting each have their own story.
Once I chose this format, the book came alive. The last story I wrote, "Aether" (about Old Cranbury teenagers at a music festival), I saw almost as a coda—a way to bring the younger generation in, to provide an unsparing reflection of their elders. I finally had to stop myself from writing even more. It was like throwing a party, when you want to invite everyone you know and introduce them to one another.
You collaborated on the cover with your husband, Thomas Doyle, whose artwork is also preoccupied with suburban scenes. What was it like to work together? Does your work influence his and vis-a-versa?
Thomas and I are both interested in houses and their cultural and psychological symbolism. I think we're both drawn to the archetypal suburban image, the classic American home—symmetrical architecture, flowers, picket fence—and we're both compelled to explode the myth of safety and ease that it represents.
Thomas creates miniature dioramas, featuring tidy suburban houses and their tiny occupants, many of whom seem oblivious (or perhaps accustomed) to a disaster that is occurring, or about to occur, around them. There are some pretty clear parallels between his work and mine. But, whereas in my work the disaster may take the form of a cheating spouse or a troubled child, in his it manifests as a missing wall, or a huge sinkhole, or household debris scattered across the lawn as if in the wake of a tornado; almost like a direct metaphor for the kinds of trouble in my stories. And, in both his work and mine, characters often seem to be going about their lives as if all is normal.
Despite the similarity of our subjects, I don't know that we are necessarily influenced by each other's work, beyond critiquing and encouraging. It's more that we operate on parallel complementary tracks. I do think, however, that we have both been powerfully influenced by becoming suburban homeowners. I've noticed that, in these past few years, we've been creating more work set in that milieu.
We both work from home, so collaboration is natural and easy. And because our artistic visions are so similar, it's great fun. Thomas has illustrated other pieces of mine, as well, and he is the first reader of all my work, so knows it intimately. For the cover of The Wonder Garden, we agreed that the house in "Ground Fault" (white, colonial) would best represent the town, and that the figures should look like David and Madeleine arriving for their home inspection. I wanted an image that was expectant and hopeful; the first view of a house that represents beauty, success and safety for these new arrivals. The miniature figures are toy-like and, as in the rest of Thomas' work, give the sense of peering into a small world where the characters are vulnerable and at the mercy of some greater force. Viewers of his work often have the feeling of watching helplessly as these small people confront disaster; I imagine that readers of my stories may feel something like this, too.