Eager to clean up his act after his troubled early twenties, Owen has returned to Kentucky to take a job as a groundskeeper at a small college in the Appalachian foothills, one which allows him to enrol on its writing course. There he begins a relationship with Alma, a writer in residence with an Ivy League education and a published book. Alma, from a supportive, liberal family of Bosnian immigrants, struggles to understand Owen’s fraught relationship with his own family and home. Lee Cole was born and grew up in rural Kentucky. A recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he now lives in New York. Groundskeeping is a love story that also investigates what it is to be a writer, competing with others, and the conditions that led to Donald Trump becoming president.
This is your debut novel. Can you tell us about how the idea formed and the path to it being published.
The idea formed in 2019, during a period of writer’s block. I was having trouble coming up with an issue or emotional question that I felt could sustain me over the course of writing a novel, which I knew could take years. In a moment of desperation one day, I forced myself to distill into one sentence what problem has been perennial in my own life, and what I came up with was the opening line of the book: that when I’m home, in Kentucky, I want to leave, and when I’m away, I’m homesick.
Everything that came after was inflected by the opening lines. Issues of class and political division had been heavy on my mind throughout the Trump years, and these are of course closely related to the theme of longing for a home you can’t return to. I felt the best way to address these issues would be by writing about a relationship, in which two people from disparate backgrounds were forced to confront their differences. The love story became a natural vehicle for me to explore all this, without it feeling like a treatise or argument. In a way, I gave the insoluble problems I’d been thinking about to my characters and let them live out the entangled implications.
In the Kentucky of the novel, young people are lonely and older people feel displaced in their own home state. Can we read America for Kentucky here, or is it something more specific in place and time?
Owen says at one point that “Kentucky is America,” and to me, the state does often seem like a microcosm for the country. Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, the president of the confederacy, were born there. It’s the state that produced the country’s most antipodal figures. What makes it unique, I think, is that whatever forces might be causing loneliness or alienation in our country – rampant consumerism, for example, or a retreat from rational discourse into conspiracy theories – are exaggerated to an almost hyperreal extent in Kentucky. This is not new; writers of the Southern Gothic (O’Connor, McCullers) always looked to the grotesque as a kind of funhouse reflection of the culture. But what interests me is how these issues of estrangement and displacement are expressed in the South, and Kentucky especially, during this time of internet algorithms, 24-hour news networks, right wing propaganda, etc. In other words, a time when people seem completely disconnected from the past and increasingly untethered from reality.
“When I’m home, in Kentucky, all I want is to leave. When I’m away, I’m homesick for a place that never was,” says Owen, echoing Pop’s feelings. Why do they think that way?
Both Pop and Owen have this simultaneous longing for the familiar and the unfamiliar. Pop had his wild days, hopping freight trains, working odd jobs during the Great Depression, and serving overseas during World War Two. But he tells Owen at one point that “the things you think are dull become the things you long for”. The trauma of war, and of really, truly being far from home, cured him of his wanderlust, and all he wanted was to come back to Kentucky and set out a tobacco crop. Owen’s not quite there yet when we meet him. He still longs for the exotic, but his sense of belonging to a place grows stronger over the course of the novel. He begins to see, like Pop, that you can never really escape your origins.
“At work that moment you could tell who voted for who,” you write about the day after the 2016 presidential election. Was there a sense of sleepwalking into a Trump victory and only waking up that morning?
I was working at a UPS warehouse the night of the election, unloading freight from airplanes. As the news trickled in, I remember walking to the breakroom, where CNN was playing on the wall-mounted TV. Some of the younger guys – mostly seasonal workers – were cheering and laughing. But the older guys – the union guys – were grim and shaking their heads. That image always stuck with me.
On one level, I felt shocked and betrayed. But on another level, when I stepped back from the situation, I couldn’t say I was surprised. People living in progressive bubbles within cities seemed to be completely blindsided by the news, but if you’d grown up in a rural area around conservatives, as I had, then you knew that Donald Trump was giving expression to undercurrents that had been in the culture for a long time.
Walter Benjamin wrote once that fascism gives people the ability to express themselves without actually changing the material conditions of their lives. I think Trump understands this really well. He knew that people were angry about stagnant wages, the outsourcing of labour, and loss of opportunity in rural areas, and he channelled that anger toward the marginalised groups that were least responsible for those problems, rather than the powerful people who created them.
Owen and Alma’s love story hits an obstacle at one point. Is it because it’s hard to love someone fundamentally different from yourself, or more because of writerly rivalry?
I think that their competing ambitions, and Owen’s compulsive need to record his life, are what come between them ultimately. The fact that they’re fundamentally different is what draws them to each other. They share a longing for the unfamiliar. But Owen is unable to separate his life from his art. He uses art to try and understand Alma, but ironically, it’s this compulsion that prevents him from really getting close to her.
Alma struggles to see a tree without thinking of a Robert Frost poem and a “storm of things”. Owen sees only the tree but wants the storm. Is this a double bind for writers and is there any way out of it?
I think this is a problem for people, not just writers. There’s the world-in-itself, the way we saw it when we were children – fresh and alive. Then there’s the world covered up by language, obscured by layers of meaning and symbol and association. There are rare moments when I can see a tree as the miracle that it is, but I wish I had access to this perception more often. I suppose the problem is more exaggerated for writers because they’re so often in the process of making meaning – of turning the world into language. Maybe we’re more liable to see the tree as representation, rather than the thing-in-itself.
Novelists used to resist the question about whether there were autobiographical elements in their novels but yours shares elements of what is now proudly being called auto-fiction. Is there a liberating aspect for writers in this trend?
I’m never quite sure what the term “auto-fiction” means, and how it’s distinct from plain old autobiographical fiction. It’s presented as something new, but its traits are present in older novels – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example, or A Farewell to Arms. It might be liberating for some writers to use the term, but I don’t see it as a really discernible genre. As Sheila Heti said recently, “All fiction is autofiction,” in the sense that all fiction – all art – comes from the self.
As a writer, Owen is more interested in turning his life into art than I am. There’s more of a one-to-one relationship between the stuff he’s working on and his life experiences, whereas for me, the connection is more tenuous and fictionalised. Even so, for better or worse, a writer can never really escape his life. All you have, at the end of the day, are your own experiences.