"The key was the monster," Lauren Groff says.
The title of Groff's debut novel, in bookstores this week, is The Monsters of Templeton - that's monsters, plural.
But the one she's talking about is the only one in the book that isn't human. As narrator Willie Upton says in the opening line, "The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass."
The monster, moon-white and mysterious as Ahab's whale but far gentler, may be pure invention. But Templeton, the quaint upstate New York town with a dark past where the novel is set, has a real-world counterpart.
"I grew up in Cooperstown," Groff says, "a little town that has figured very large in American history."
At the door of her home in Gainesville, a handsomely restored frame house near downtown, Groff is accompanied by a fierce-looking but well-mannered Shar-Pei/Lab mix named, of course, Cooper. "He's the monster of our house."
Groff, 29, moved to Gainesville after she married Clay Kallman, a developer who is a grandson of the founders of Gainesville's landmark Florida Book Store. She earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
"This isn't the first book I've written," she says. "I've been writing since I was 14." Her short stories have appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares and other publications, but three earlier novels are unpublished.
The Monsters of Templeton, though, is getting plenty of buzz for its deft mix of history, mystery and magical realism. A glowing mention of the book by Stephen King in his column for Entertainment Weekly didn't hurt. "He had chosen one of my stories when he edited Best American Short Stories" in 2007, Groff says, "so he knew my work. But that was a massive surprise."
The Monsters of Templeton was born of homesickness. "I was living in San Francisco, which is great, but it's a very different kind of place." As a teen, Groff couldn't wait to leave Cooperstown - "30 miles to the nearest mall" - but from a distance it "seemed like Utopia."
"I was lonely and dreaming of Cooperstown. For me as a native, it was a place where everybody knows you, everybody loves you, everybody knows the trajectory of your life."
She liked the idea of making the town a character, writing about "the whole panorama" of its history, from its founding in 1786 to the present, by "letting the voices rise up."
Over three years of writing, the novel went through four drafts and a multitude of narrators. Finally, Groff found the voice she needed: Willie Upton, an emotionally conflicted graduate student who comes home to Templeton from an archaeological dig in Alaska.
Willie has a secret that isn't secret for long: She is pregnant after an ill-fated affair with a married professor. But the secret that drives the book's plot is who Willie's father was.
Her mother, Vivienne, got pregnant while living in a commune of hippies, and she has always told Willie she wasn't sure who fathered her child. But now she confesses that isn't true, that Willie's father lives in Templeton - and that Willie will have to track him down herself.
That propels Willie, an obsessive researcher, into a quest to fill out her family tree, all the way back to town patriarch Marmaduke Temple.
Groff borrowed that name from Cooperstown's most famous literary son, James Fenimore Cooper. Considered one of the earliest significant American novelists, Fenimore Cooper is best remembered for his five linked Leatherstocking Tales about the American frontier: The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie, The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer.
Though Fenimore Cooper's florid style seems a bit much to most modern readers, his stories of the often-violent settlement of the nation capture an enduring myth. The Pioneers is set in Cooperstown, which he called Templeton; its Marmaduke Temple was modeled on his formidable father, town founder William Cooper.
But Groff isn't just retelling Fenimore Cooper here. "History has always been male. It's been told by white men who have been educated. It drives me nuts. What about the wives? What about the slaves? These are the people that are interesting to me."
And those are the voices that rise up in her novel, the multiple narrators linked by Willie's quest: women, slaves, Indians. Some of them are Fenimore Cooper's characters, like Chingachgook and Davy Shipman (the real-life model for iconic Natty Bumppo). Others are based on later Cooperstown residents and Groff's research into the town's history.
The text of the novel is laced with old photographs and engravings, most from Groff's own collection ("I have this fixation with antique stores"), chosen to create visual images of her characters. "I did have to buy Marmaduke on eBay. Now he's hanging in our dining room, enormous and dour, glowering down on our dinner guests."
There's an image of the monster, too, which Groff calls Glimney. "I made it myself one afternoon on Photoshop."
The monster as a physical presence, not just a myth, plays a meaningful part in the book. Groff has been thinking about it since an experience she had as an 18-year-old.
Her younger sister, now a triathlete, broke a record for swimming the 91/2-mile length of Otsego Lake, on whose southern shore Cooperstown sits. "I was very competitive," says Groff, "so the next year I went out, with my dad along in a kayak."
Some 5 miles into her swim, exhausted, she saw the sun rise. "My blood sugar and body temperature were low, and I had been alone in my head so long. I looked down and saw this creature way down below, swimming with me. I thought, wow, that thing is really deep, and that means it must be really big.
"But I wasn't scared. I was filled with this sense of joy and love. I just wanted to invest the book with that feeling."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.
The Monsters of Templeton
By Lauren Groff
Voices, 364 pages, $24.95