Dystopian worlds may be all the rage in fiction right now, but writer Lauren Groff is bucking that trend. She's more interested in Utopian communities, like the 1960s commune she envisions in her new novel, Arcadia.
Groff says she got the idea for Arcadia while pregnant with her first child. She fell into a depression, living in an unfamiliar town where she didn't know anyone, waiting for her first book to be published and wondering what kind of world she was bringing her child into.
"And so this book came as an act of willpower. I was trying to will the world into caring and will myself into being happy," Groff says.
She found herself fascinated by the way people keep trying to form Utopian communities, even though so many of them ultimately fail. So she began to research Utopian societies, and eventually settled on two: Oneida, a 19th century commune in upstate New York, and The Farm, founded in Tennessee in the 1960s.
The Farm is still in existence. In an interview, founder Stephen Gaskin says its founding was driven by the members' need for land. "We said we gotta go have land. We gotta be together so we can work. We got to try to live our future that we have talked about for so long, and we left to go to Tennessee."
Groff says she borrowed some details from The Farm to create her own fictional commune. But Arcadia, unlike The Farm, is doomed to fail. Though it delivers on some of its Utopian ideals, the commune is also fraught with tension between the pragmatic and the more idealistic members.
Groff tells Arcadia's story through Bit, a small child who roams freely around the commune and is a keen observer of his surroundings.
"Bit clearly does not understand everything that he sees, but it makes an impression on him, and I love that about him," Groff says. "I think he's an open character; he's given all the love in the community without necessarily being told he can't do things, so he's, he's an open, vulnerable character."
Bit's special status in Arcadia comes from his early birth, the first child born to the commune, on the road before the members even settled down. His nickname refers to his small size at birth.
Bit and his friends grow up with few rules, soaking in the beauty of nature and studying whatever they want to. But they're often hungry and sometimes neglected by their parents, and when they reach adolescence they're often tempted by the drugs and sex that surround them.
When the commune finally breaks down, they have to move out into a world they don't fully understand — a move that's traumatic for Bit.
"He goes straight to the city and he is distanced from what he loves so deeply in the world," says Groff. "I mean he's distanced from these beautiful upstate New York winters and springs and mornings and sunrises."
But by the end of the book, Bit has grown into a man who is more than capable of holding two ideas in his head at one time: He knows Arcadia was tragically flawed, yet he's grateful for what it has given him.
Groff follows Bit and his compatriots well into adulthood, through marriages, parenthood and illnesses. Some end up as damaged goods, while some adapt and thrive. Through it all, a core group remains connected by the common experience of life in Arcadia.
"Oh, they love each other so much," Groff says. "And that's what I was looking for in this book. I was trying really hard to find a community with people who followed one another and cared for one another outside of the bounds of family."
Groff says she was skeptical about communes at first, but her views changed as she wrote the book.
"I saw that a lot of the people who did create communes like this were very smart and studied very hard and knew what they were doing," she says. "They looked at the world and they looked at their fellow human beings, and they said, 'I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt.' And I find that that humanism is noble and I want to defend that."
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